VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright never saw the spiral coming at Villanova.
Wright, the men’s basketball coach, never imagined the Wildcats would squander a 20-point lead to Notre Dame and an 18-point lead in losses to Marquette and Connecticut. He didn’t think he’d experience those sleepless nights when three straight losses turned into seven of eight, and then, the avalanche that led to 19 overall.
He always expected the best out of his Wildcats last season.
“What’s the best we can be?” he said. “You’re not thinking about, what’s the worst we can be?”
Wright had his final answer when the Wildcats were mercifully put out of business for the season with a loss to South Florida in the Big East tournament. That stuck the Wildcats at 13-19 and out of the postseason, easily the worst season in Wright’s 11 seasons, and snuffing their run of NCAA tournament appearances at seven straight. The 19 losses were a season-worst for a program that started playing in 1920.
Only three years earlier, Wright was one of the hottest college coaches in hoops. He rebuilt the wreckage he inherited by mining the fertile Northeast for talent and taking the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009. He had All-America talent. They won 30 games. The Philadelphia 76ers came calling.
Good times were rolling for the hottest team in Philly and there was no end in sight.
Fast forward to 2012. Drexel and Saint Joseph’s are the only area teams earning votes in The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25. Temple has become the team to beat and emulate in Philadelphia — and the Owls are ready to storm Villanova’s Big East turf in 2013 and pluck from the same recruiting pool.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats were picked to finish 12th in the Big East. They went 5-13 in the conference last season.
The days of the ESPN “GameDay” crew hitting campus and Larry Brown sitting courtside are over for now on the Main Line.
“We made some mistakes,” Wright said. “Some of the older guys didn’t develop as well as we liked. It put the young guys in a tough position.”
Even the offseason was a mess when assistant coach Doug Martin resigned days after he was hired because of inaccuracies on his resume. Maalik Wayns decided to forgo his final season of eligibility and enter the NBA draft. After going undrafted, he’s now a reserve with the Sixers.
So it’s time to regroup. It’s up to Wright to figure out how the Wildcats get their mojo back and return to their place as one of the sport’s most prominent teams. That might not happen this season, but Wright believes talented pieces are in place to stick the Wildcats back on course.
Wright says he doesn’t feel he’s on the hot seat, even as Villanova’s win total has decreased three straight seasons.
“Not from anybody at Villanova, no,” Wright said. “It’s more the media. The Villanova people have been awesome. That’s the beauty of Villanova. They have a great perspective. They love their team, they appreciate you being here.
“But a few more years like this? They might not like it.”
Though first-weekend exits in the NCAA tournaments the previous two season served as a sneak preview of what was ahead, Wright is convinced last season was more a one-year hiccup than the start of a run into oblivion in a deep Big East. Wright said the Wildcats strayed from what he calls, “Villanova basketball,” a simple method of attacking the boards, driving to the basket, getting to the foul line. Playing basketball the right way.
“We didn’t do what we do well,” Wright said. “We weren’t a good team. That’s what happens. You can have good people and not have a good team. That’s what we were last year, we were not a good team.”
Full of optimism before the first ball is tipped, Wright sees the makings of a good one this season, especially when he looks at the backcourt. Freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono, junior James Bell and Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault could form a reliable backcourt. Unlike their guard-oriented heyday, Villanova’s go-to scorers are in the frontcourt, sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston and center Mouphtaou Yarou.
The Wildcats open the season by hosting the first two rounds of the 2K Sports Classic on Nov. 9 against District of Columbia and Nov. 11 against Marshall. They open the Big East season on Jan. 2 against St. John’s. Villanova plays no preseason Top 25 teams in the conference portion of the schedule.
If Yarou and Pinkston develop into double-double threats inside, and Arcidiacono quickly blossoms into a reliable point guard who can hit his big guys in the post, then a second- or third-tier postseason tournament is within Villanova’s reach.
If not, Wright may be dabbling again in TV work in March.
“I hear people that aren’t Villanova fans say, ‘Hey, you better get it going,'” Wright said. “It’s not wrong. It’s not like we don’t want to get it going. I don’t have any problem with it.”