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Villanova Upbeat Despite Down Finish

Jul 28, 2010 – 12:30 PM
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Brett McMurphy

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- A preseason No. 5 ranking followed by 25 victories, Villanova's sixth consecutive 20-win season. The Wildcats began last season 10-0, never dropped lower than No. 9 in the nation and were ranked as high as No. 2.

Villanova earned a No. 2 seed to the 2010 NCAA tournament, its sixth consecutive NCAA appearance under coach Jay Wright.

While most college basketball coaches would kill for that kind of season, it was considered anything but a success. In fact, for Villanova, the season was, for all intents and purposes, a big fat disappointment.

"I think generally a Villanova fan would say it was a disappointing year," Wright told FanHouse earlier this summer. "We had been in the top 10 all year. You can't argue with that. You look at the positives and you say the expectations have really grown and the program has really grown."

Wright and his players realize better than anyone that a top four finish in the Big East and an NCAA tournament trip isn't good enough anymore for the small private Catholic university. That's because Wright has built the program to the point where the Wildcats expect a Sweet 16 or Final Four run like they did, respectively, in 2008 and 2009.

So as much as Villanova accomplished during last season, the one thing that overshadows everything was the Wildcats' final game – a 75-68 second-round NCAA tournament loss to No. 10 seed Saint Mary's.

It wasn't so much that the Wildcats suffered their second earliest NCAA tournament exit under Wright, but instead how the Wildcats finished the season, Wright said. Or, make that, how they didn't finish the season.

Villanova won 20 of its first 21 games, but staggered down the stretch. The Wildcats lost five of their final 12 games, including a 3-6 record in their last nine contests.

"We're using that (early NCAA exit as motivation for this season), but it's not that we lost the game," Wright said. "We didn't improve as much as we wanted to throughout the season.

"We were a good team early in the season with a lot of young players. We did improve gradually, but not enough. That's what we'll take from it. It's not the loss (to Saint Mary's), it's more looking back at the overall season. We didn't work hard enough in December and January to get where we wanted in March."

The Wildcats' high expectations last season was based on a plethora of talent, including seniors Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, juniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena, transfer Taylor King and a incoming recruiting class ranked among the nation's best.

Early on the Wildcats lived up to their billing, but down the stretch they fell apart.

"I wanted to go back to the Final Four," Fisher told Villanova.com. "Our whole team and our whole coaching staff would have liked that too.

"We know that some people look at us losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a down year. But for us, it just lets us know what we have to do to get better. That season is over and all we can do is come back to school and work hard to be the best team we can be."

For the Wildcats to improve on last season, they'll have to do it without Reynolds, who finished his stellar career as the school's second-leading all-time scorer.

"He scored over 2,000 points and that's what most people will think is difficult to replace," Wright said. "That won't be difficult. What will be difficult will be the leadership, the character, the role model he was -- not just for our players, but our recruits, our student body. He really was the face of Villanova basketball."

This year's face of the Wildcats will consist of the two Coreys -- Fisher and Stokes -- and Antonio Pena. The three returning senior starters plus five more returning lettermen -- all of which are sophomores: Maurice Sutton, Isaiah Armwood, Dominic Cheek, Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou -- gives Wright a solid nucleus which, of course, brings with it more sky-high expectations.

Villanova is ranked No. 6 in FanHouse's early preseason rankings for 2010-11. And that's just fine with Wright. He wouldn't want it any other way.

"I like our core group coming back," said Wright, 203-99 in nine seasons at Villanova. "I'm happy where we are. If we can maintain that each year and be around the top of the Big East -- you can't ask for more than that in our conference."

Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at brettmcmurphy@gmail.com or please follow on Twitter @brettmcmurphy
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