Wildcats living up to lofty expectations

February 4, 2010 4:13:49 PM PST
Standing at a podium and delivering a Hall of Fame speech, former Temple coach John Chaney stopped mid-story and veered into some advice he wished he had given Jay Wright last April.

Chaney wanted to call Wright and tell him to make Villanova practice at an NFL stadium before playing in the one in Detroit at the Final Four. Chaney explained that those cavernous domes skew depth perception even for top shooters.

There was a reason Chaney mentioned the tip again. "I want you to remember that because you're going back again this year!" Chaney said to big applause.

Chaney, the wise old Owl, might be on to something.

The Wildcats went 24 years between Final Four appearances, spanning their 1985 national championship team to last year's bunch that lost to North Carolina in the national semifinal. This year's team has no intention of making the program wait another quarter century before playing the last weekend of the season. Villanova is as deep, loaded and motivated as it's ever been under Wright - and this year's team may give him his best shot yet at winning a national championship.

"We can't think about that," Wright said. "But I don't mind if everybody else does. We wouldn't talk about it anyway because there's a lot of ball to play."

Villanova has already lived up to the hype of opening the season as the Big East favorite. The Wildcats are ranked No. 2 for only the third time in team history, their 20-1 start is the best for a program that began play in 1920, and they are the only Big East team unbeaten in conference play (9-0 entering Saturday's game at No. 7 Georgetown).

Those are the kinds of benchmarks that earn teams No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.

"What I really like is that they see we can get better," Wright said. "We come out of these games, they don't look at it like, this is easy. They look at it like, I made a mistake here, I didn't do this, I need to learn this better."

That attitude starts at the top with Big East player of the year favorite Scottie Reynolds and stretches all the way down the bench to the 11th man. It has to, because they're all playing.

Few teams can boast the depth of talent that Wright has recruited to the Main Line. The Wildcats have five McDonald's high school All-Americans and none has grumbled about playing time to the media or on social networking sites. Villanova has 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes and one just a tick under 10 minutes. They wear teams down with their fresh bench players, have nary a worry about foul trouble and have run over team after team with an inevitable second-half run.

Ten players both scored and grabbed a rebound in Tuesday's 81-71 win over Seton Hall. In nine Big East games, Villanova's bench has 254 points, an average of 28.2 per game.

"This is the first time since we've been here where we have 10, 11 guys ready to play," Wright said.

Corey Fisher, Antonio Pena, Reggie Redding & Crew have all played invaluable roles in Villanova's 11-game winning streak. But the Wildcats might be chasing the Big East lead instead of holding it without their Top 'Cat - Reynolds.

The 6-foot-2 guard is making his senior season one to remember. His value goes beyond his 18.5 scoring average, 41 percent 3-point shooting (up 6 percent from last year) or his 71 assists.

It's his knack for making a key play just when the Wildcats need one. He'll forever be a legend at Villanova for his end-to-end layup over Pittsburgh in the NCAA regional final that thrust the Wildcats into the Final Four. But pick out almost every win this season, and there's a moment when Reynolds made the difference.

Take a look at Villanova's season sweep over Marquette. In the Jan. 2 win, Reynolds scored the go-ahead basket with 18.1 seconds left. In the Jan. 9 win, it was Reynolds coming up with a game-saving steal after making a costly turnover.

"He doesn't fear failure," Wright said. "He has won so many games for us. There's a few where he has not come through. That's what makes you great. It never prevents him from not wanting the ball the next time. Every time he does something big the next time."

Reynolds reached the 2,000-point milestone (2,008) in Tuesday's win against Seton Hall. Reynolds has a shot at setting the Villanova record for points, held by Kerry Kittles (2,243). Reynolds and Kittles are the only Wildcats with at least 2,000 career points and 400 assists.

Reynolds never would have dreamed about the scoring record had he kept his name in the NBA draft last summer instead of returning for his senior season.

Wright said there were times early in Reynolds' career when he fretted over how a poor game might affect his NBA stock. Now, Reynolds is purely focused on winning games and championships. "Coach always tells us, just be here now," Reynolds said. "That's what I'm trying to do."

Here, for now, is atop the Big East standings.

Staying there might require some more indelible moments from Reynolds. The Wildcats hit the road for games Saturday at No. 7 Georgetown and Monday at No. 6 West Virginia. There's never a breather in the brutal conference schedule, but the title could come down to Feb. 27 at Syracuse - a game that has already sold a Carrier Dome record 34,616 tickets.

"We know we can go on this road trip and be second or third or fourth in the Big East," Wright said. "We have a lot of 'ats.' We know what we have ahead of us."

Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he didn't expect any team to duplicate the Cardinals' 16-2 conference mark from a year ago - not even the Wildcats.

"Villanova is obviously a very good basketball team, but I do think they're still going to take three, four losses," he said.

Wright knows success in the tournament is found on the road. The Wildcats hope their last at is at Indianapolis - site of the Final Four and home of the Indianapolis Colts. It's the kind of place where Chaney's advice might come in handy.