VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Jay Wright laughed as he recounted the feeling of momentary panic he felt back on Aug. 7. The Villanova coach was in New York City guiding a team of collegians who were scrimmaging against the NBA players headed to play for the U.S. at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey. After practice one day, a group of reporters approached Wright to get his reaction to the news that Corey Fisher, his 6-foot-1 senior guard, had scored 105 points in a summer league all-star game in his hometown of the Bronx, N.Y. It was the first Wright had heard of it.
His first thought was to wonder if the game was unsanctioned by the NCAA. That would have meant Fisher would have to sit out a game to start the season. "I just told the media guys I didn't know anything about it. Then I called our compliance guy and said, 'Get a hold of Corey,'" Wright told me last Monday as we ate lunch in a cafeteria on Villanova's leafy campus. Once he realized the game was kosher, Wright called Fisher himself. His first comment was tongue-in-cheek: "Did the guy you were guarding score 103?" The second, more serious: "That's what we've been trying to get you to do for three years."
Fisher has been wearing a Villanova uniform for three years, but he is only now beginning his first year A.S. -- After Scotty. That's Scottie Reynolds, who last spring graduated as the school's No. 2 alltime scorer with 2,222 points. Reynolds was so talented, so clutch and such a good representative of the program that many of his teammates were overly deferential to him. The prime violator was Fisher, whom one member of the staff says has "a high need for harmony." As Wright told me over lunch, "Corey's not the cocky street kid from the Bronx that people think he is. He's actually very sensitive. You might not believe this, but for the last couple of years, the biggest problem we had was trying to get Corey to be a dominant player when Scottie was on the floor."
A high need for harmony is a lovely trait to have in a future husband. Not so much in a basketball player. Sometimes a guy has to have selfishness commensurate with his talent, and for much of his career Fisher has lacked that. During the two-hour practice I watched, Fisher, who looked more broad-shouldered and barrel-chested than I remembered from last season, demonstrated considerable physical gifts -- draining three-pointers, driving to the rim, ripping an offensive rebound in traffic. But even though Wright emphasizes vocal communication, I hardly heard Fisher's voice over the din.
For Villanova to reach its potential, this is what has to change the most. Nobody realizes that more than Fisher, who led the team in assists last year (3.9 per game) and was second in scoring (13.3). "I've learned a lot about being a leader from Scottie," he told me after practice. "Me and Coach Wright talk about me being like his assistant on the floor, and also being more vocal. That's what I have to be working on."
If Fisher takes this next step, then I predict Villanova will be the best team in the Big East this season. Because while Reynolds was a fabulous player, his talent did not match his moxie. As good as he was, he still went undrafted by the NBA and is now playing professionally in Italy.
Could Villanova actually be better without him? Well, consider how much Notre Dame improved after Luke Harangody got injured late last season, allowing the Irish to make their run and get into the NCAA tournament. When I mentioned this analogy to Wright, he agreed. "When you have a kid who's that talented, you want to use him, but sometimes it's easier for an opponent to stop one guy," Wright said. "Take him out of the mix and everybody takes advantage of the opportunity."
Besides a more assertive Fisher, Villanova should also benefit this season from the improvement of its five-man sophomore class. Players usually undergo more growth between their freshman and sophomore years of college than at any juncture, and Wright's quintet is on the verge of a collective breakout. All were reserves last season, but two of them -- 6-2 point guard Maalik Wayns and 6-10 center Mouphtaou Yarou -- are pretty much guaranteed to start this season. The others will see plenty of minutes.
Wright has two other experienced seniors to work alongside Fisher. Corey Stokes, a 6-5 swingman, has been an inconsistent shooter (he shot just 41.6 percent from the field last season), but he is reliable in all the other facets of the game. The other is Antonio Pena, a 6-8 forward and fifth-year senior who led the team in rebounding last season with 7.0 per game.
The roster also includes an intriguing freshman in 6-7 swingman JayVaughn Pinkston. Wright introduced me to Pinkston as we walked across campus last week, and the kid seemed personable and engaging. The coaching staff has been taken not just with Pinkston's talent, but also with his ability to pick up complicated concepts quickly. Best of all, he has a Big East-ready body. "He was considered a pretty rough kid in Brooklyn, but he has really impressed everybody. He gets it," Wright said.
We usually think of Villanova as Guard U, but this is the best and deepest front line Wright has had in years. The Wildcats won't be as prepared for the start of the season as a veteran team like Pittsburgh, whom the Big East coaches picked as the preseason favorite, but if they can stay healthy (and they've already lost freshman guard James Bell for a couple of months following surgery to repair stress fractures in the tibia of both legs), then they could be at the top of the heap by the time the postseason rolls around.
• This is an excellent passing team, and not just from the two-headed point guard spot of Fisher and Wayns. Stokes, Pena and sophomore forwards Dominic Cheek and Maurice Sutton all demonstrated surprising court vision. That tells me the 'Cats have the potential to be a very good half-court offensive team.
• There aren't many coaches who put as much emphasis on talking as Wright does. (Mike Krzyzewski, whose practice I'll be visiting this week, is another that comes to mind.) I had been thinking that Wright's players talked an awful lot when he stopped the practice to chastise them for not being even more vocal. "If you know it, say it. If you see it, say it," he said. When play resumed, the guys yapped so much it was deafening.
• Pinkston is listed on the roster at 235 pounds. If he's 235, I'm Mary Kate Olsen. I'd say Pinkston is actually closer to 270 -- but it's a solid 270.
• If you look at the Villanova roster, you can see the program's template for recruiting. It is filled with players from the inner city who attended private Catholic schools. To wit:
The result is a team that's tough enough to win in the Big East and smart enough to make it through a rigorous academic program. Pretty good combination, I'd say.
• The geek in me is always interested in seeing the new ways coaches are utilizing technology. For example, Wright has a brand new smart board in his office. He can sit at the conference table and draw on a monitor, like a TV analyst using a telestrator, and his lines are projected onto a big white screen. He also wore a microphone during practice. Every coach digitally films practice and puts together clips to show his players, but by wearing a microphone, Wright can keep a running dialogue with his video coordinator, who is sitting courtside with a laptop and a pair of earphones. So if Wright sees something he likes, he can simply say into his microphone, "Clip that play." And presto, it happens.
• I'm sure a lot of people see Wright -- what with his good looks, flashy suits and charismatic personality -- and assume that someday he will either springboard into a "bigger" college job or take a shot at the NBA. But I think he's at Villanova for life. Wright was offered the Philadelphia 76ers' position a year ago, and he considered it mostly because the team's general manager, Ed Stefanski, is a close friend. Wright told me that Jim Valvano once cautioned him to "never to mess with happiness." Many coaches don't heed that advice, but I think Wright will.
Heart and soul: Fisher. I almost went with "vacant" here, but I didn't want to wimp out. Stokes and Pena have personalities that are more suited for vocal leadership, but Fisher is going to be the guy with the ball in his hands in crucial situations. Remember how he went 7-for-7 from the foul line down the stretch as a freshman to help 'Nova get past Pitt in the regional finals two years ago? He's going to have to do that a lot this season.
Most improved:Dominic Cheek, 6-6 sophomore forward. I saw Cheek play quite a bit in high school, so I was disappointed he didn't have a greater impact last season. He played just 13.5 minutes per game and shot 31 percent from three-point range. Wright told me that Cheek had recurring knee problems during his senior year at St. Anthony's, which kept him from pushing himself more in the weight room. Over the summer, Cheek focused on getting stronger from the waist down. He couldn't dunk off two feet last year, but now he's doing that with ease. Cheek reminds me a little bit of Richard Jefferson at the same age; he has that kind of grace and athleticism. He'll be better this season, but my sense is he's still a year away from being a high-level Big East player.
X-factor: Yarou. Imagine how hard it must have been for Yarou to adjust to playing Big East basketball as a freshman. He spent just two years playing American high school basketball after emigrating from his native country, the African nation of Benin. Then, after he contracted hepatitis B in the fall, he missed the first seven weeks of the season, during which he was not allowed to work out with his teammates. Yarou managed to play in 21 games for the 'Cats, and he helped rescue them from a first-round NCAA upset by putting up 17 points in a three-point victory over Robert Morris. Yarou's body looked slimmer to me, but he told me afterward that he hasn't lost any weight. He did, however, lower his body fat from 12 percent to 8, and he said he has a much higher degree of confidence, conditioning and comfort. If he can pick up where he left off last season and build on it, it will be a game changer.
Glue guy: Pena. He might not be the toughest kid on the squad, but he is an effective rebounder and a really good passer. Said Wright, "If you watched highlights of Scottie's fast breaks last year, a lot of them started with outlet passes from Antonio." Pena is also a good interior passer, which should enable Yarou to get some clean looks in the half court.
Lost in the shuffle: Sutton. When I asked Wright over lunch about Sutton, he told me, "If you catch him on the right two or three possessions, you'd say, this guy is a pro." Unfortunately, a basketball game lasts longer than two or three possessions. Sutton is bouncy and agile, and he was terrific during some of the drills I watched. But when the team started scrimmaging full court 5-on-5, he appeared lost. I think Sutton can help this team, but he's not ready to battle with the physical bodies in the Big East.
Bottom line: I must admit, I came away from practice a little less optimistic about Villanova's prospects than I was going in. Still, the pieces are clearly in place here for a Big East championship. The Wildcats may not have looked like a Final Four team on Monday, but that's why they don't play the NCAA tournament in October. March could be a much different story.