Villanova looks to reverse slump in NCAA tourney

March 17, 2011 2:48:53 PM PDT
Villanova formed a circle at mid-court, then welcomed the program's sage into the center.

Rollie Massimino, who led the Wildcats to a most improbable national championship, walked over from the sideline for a post-practice pep talk with a simple message: I believe in you.

"I told them, they're good enough to win the whole thing," Massimino said Thursday. "We were in the same position. I said, 'Let's go out and win it'."

Massimino's presence around the program is a joyful reminder of the 1985 tournament when Villanova shocked the basketball world and won its only national championship.

Villanova coach Jay Wright, a Massimino disciple, always makes sure his mentor and March magician has a seat behind the bench for the tournament.

"His national championship run is folklore at Villanova, so any time he is around, you feel like it's magical," Wright said, "and that's why I wanted to him on the court with the guys."

Massimino's Wildcats were an unheralded No. 8 seed that knocked off mighty Georgetown to win it all. Wright led the Wildcats to their next Final Four in 2009, but this year's team can only hope some of that Massimino magic will rub off this March.

Villanova (21-11) needs all the help it can get, starting Friday against No. 8 George Mason (26-6) in the East. After all, the Wildcats had their second straight miserable finish to end a regular season, a five-game losing streak that plopped them into the tournament as a No. 9 seed.

The Wildcats started 16-1 but lost seven of their final nine - they even blew a 16-point lead in a Big East tournament loss to South Florida.

The preseason pick to finish second in the league, Villanova was hit by injury and poor play. The Wildcats stumbled to a 9-9 conference record. And Wright was charged with publicly defending his team and privately boosting sagging morale.

Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes lead a senior class that reached a Sweet 16 and a Final Four their first two seasons, before learning a harsh lesson - in last year's second-round loss to Saint Mary's - that tournament success is not guaranteed.

"I think last year they kind of felt like it just happens. You come to Villanova and it just happens," Wright said. "I think last year they learned it doesn't just happen. It's very, very fragile."

The seniors have one more shot to prove they can go deep in March without relying on Scottie Reynolds and their other former teammates.

Stokes is healthy after missing games with foot and hamstring injuries, and the early hook from the Big East tournament gave Fisher (knee) and Mouphtou Yarou (ribs, shoulder) time to rest.

"Being the underdog is good, but we don't consider ourselves the underdog," Fisher said. "We know how good we are."

The Wildcats set the national championship benchmark for unheralded teams. The program is not alone in improbable runs to the Final Four.

No recent team captured America's attention - and busted office brackets - like the Patriots in 2006. George Mason made the field this year as an at-large team for the first time since it stormed past Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to thrust the program into the national spotlight.

Unlike some March darlings, coach Jim Larranaga hasn't let the team fade into obscurity. The Patriots returned to the tournament in 2008 (lost in the first round) and set a school record this year with 16 straight wins before losing in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals.

This is the first time in six NCAA tournaments the Patriots are a single-digit seed.

George Mason guard Andre Cornelius and forward Luke Hancock practiced after they were injured on Tuesday. Cornelius limped off with a trainer and Hancock was wheeled off with the shoe removed from his left foot. Larranaga didn't expect the injuries to be an issue.

Larranaga, the CAA coach of the year, talked nearly as much about the '06 team as this year's team that put a 14-0 home record and 20 wins by 10-plus points on their resume.

"I never get tired of talking about '06," he said. "Who would get tired of people talking about a great time in your life? It just brings back great memories every time it's mentioned."

He wants the Patriots to believe they can duplicate that feat. Cam Long, Ryan Pearson and Isaiah Tate laughed at each question about 2006. They were in high school and had nothing to do with that run - and everything to do with sustained success the last five years.

"We're just trying to build our own legacy and have our own identity," Pearson said. "We're just trying to make them, well, not forget about it, but talk about this year's George Mason team and what they're going to do in the NCAA tournament."

One look at Massimino huddled up with the Wildcats and it's clear no one can ever forget those special tournament teams.