Scottie Reynolds passed up his chance to jump to the NBA. Jay Wright never seriously considered bolting the Wildcats for the Philadelphia 76ers head coaching vacancy.
Villanova‘s star guard and coach had numerous reasons to stick around. One of the most obvious was this season: Both knew the Wildcats could be a powerhouse, with a return trip to the Final Four a legitimate possibility.
This season marks the 25th anniversary of the “Perfect Upset” and the program’s only national championship. Stop by the Pavilion or take a peek at who has the prime seats for NCAA tournaments games, and it seems those Wildcats are still as much a part of the program as Reynolds and Wright.
Article continues below ...
This year’s team wants to give that 1985 squad some championship company.
“This team has a chance,” Reynolds said.
The Wildcats already have raised a banner to the rafters celebrating last season’s Final Four berth. Villanova‘s road to a repeat is off and running. The Wildcats (30-8) were picked as the Big East favorites by conference coaches and are ranked fifth in The Associated Press preseason college basketball poll.
“There’s a real sense of pride here, there really is,” Wright said. “We’ve always had it. It’s kind of on another level right now. There’s also more responsibility that goes with that. We have to maintain that tradition (that previous classes) set. That’s where the pressure comes for us, not from the outside.”
If any coach can deflect pressure off his team, it’s the always collected Wright. He enters his ninth season at Villanova with one of the more unique challenges of his career. He has to find a way to mix six new players to a returning group determined to prove last season was not a fluke, but the start of regular Final Four contention.
Villanova‘s freshman class was ranked one of country’s best by most recruiting services.
Mouphtaou Yarou, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound center, has the potential to become a needed shot-blocking force on a guard-heavy team. Guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek were both McDonald’s All-Americans and could get a shot early at proving themselves worthy of heavy minutes.
Each day at practice, Wright finds the freshman trying to outdo each other.
“They make you say, ‘Wow,”‘ Wright said. “Then a different one each day really looks like a freshman. That’s freshmen, but I’m sure glad we have them.”
Wright’s also sure glad he has Reynolds.
The Wildcats’ 6-2 point guard returns as a Big East preseason first-team pick after opting not to bypass his senior season for a shot at the NBA. Reynolds, who has scored 1,620 points in three seasons, withdrew from the draft because he was projected as a second-round pick.
He’s out this year to be the steady senior leader Villanova needs – and to improve his draft stock.
“He’s trusting that a year of just getting better, getting smarter, making better decisions, being a leader is going to make him an NBA player,” Wright said.
Reynolds already has his spot in Villanova history with one of the biggest shots in team history. His half-court dash for the winning layup with 0.5 seconds left against Pittsburgh sent Villanova to the Final Four for the first time since 1985. Reynolds couldn’t take a step around campus or a visit home without being reminded of that sensational shot.
He’s tried to downplay the clutch basket, even as others won’t let him.
“Everyone’s still on a high from the Final Four around here,” Wright said.
That postseason trip to Detroit, which ended with a loss in the semifinals to eventual national champion North Carolina, made Wright a hot prospect for coaching openings. He listened to Philadelphia 76ers president Ed Stefanski’s pitch when they had a coaching vacancy, and Wright was briefly intrigued about the possibility of calling the shots for his hometown team.
The flirtation was brief, and Wright is back on the Main Line.
“I knew I didn’t want to leave here, but it was the 76ers. It was my hometown team,” Wright said. “I don’t want any other job. I love this job, but that one made me stop and think. I thought about it and I thought I just loved this job. I didn’t want to leave this.”
He had to deal with one headache when guard Reggie Redding was suspended after an offseason arrest for marijuana possession. Redding is out until mid-December. Wright said Reynolds, guards Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher, and forward Antonio Pena have “got to be studs every day” until the younger Wildcats find their way in the brutal Big East.
The learning curve is a short one when every team is coming after the conference favorites. Nothing can be assumed, Wright says.
“I never think we should win the Big East,” Wright said. “I always want us to win the Big East… It’s such a grind. It’s like a mini-NBA season.”