Long runs in the NCAA tournament have become commonplace for Villanova, even as recently as two years ago, when the Wildcats reached the Final Four. So back-to-back flameouts on the first weekend of the dance have heightened public curiosity about the state of Jay Wright's program.
The endings were similarly awful. Last year, the No. 2-seeded Wildcats were upset in the second round by No. 10 St. Mary's, punctuating a 5-7 finish after a 20-1 start. Friday's come-from-ahead loss to George Mason made the Cats the first NCAA team to finish a season with six consecutive losses since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985.
Much of 'Nova Nation might vote this year as the more disappointing. The Wildcats were ranked sixth in the preseason poll and rocketed to a 16-1 start but went 5-11 after that. A combination of injuries and a brutal February schedule hurt their chances of winning, and the subsequent losing affected the team's confidence, which translated into shoddy execution at crunch time.
But Wright, who completed his 10th season on the Main Line with Friday's 61-57 loss in Cleveland, said it's all part of college basketball, and he does not see "a crisis in our program."
"I can definitely see how, in terms of the perception of our program, it could be a dent, but I know for sure within the program, it's just the challenge you have of a long-term program," Wright said on March 10, standing in the empty practice gym at the Davis Center two days after his team was shocked by South Florida in the Big East Conference tournament.
"If you don't go to Sweet 16s, final eights, Final Fours, then when this happens, it's not a big deal. But it does happen to programs. It happened to North Carolina last year, it's happened at Connecticut. So I see that. But I feel really good about where the program is. I feel good about the young guys. I feel good about the recruits. And I really feel great about the way these guys have handled this.
"I wish we didn't have two seasons that ended this way. . . . We would like not to be in this situation, but it is part of being at a school for a long time and having some success. You have to deal with it."
Syracuse, UCLA, and - most recently - Michigan State this season, are traditional powers that have had to deal with adversity in the last few years. Kansas and Duke, ranked 1-2 in the number of consecutive NCAA appearances on the active list, seem to be the exceptions.
Villanova's final two games were representative of its perplexing season. There was the second-half collapse against USF when the Wildcats blew a 16-point halftime lead and, in the final minute, made three poor plays - two on defense, one on an inbounds pass - to seal their fate.
On Friday, the Wildcats took a six-point halftime lead against George Mason and then seemed to abandon what had worked for them. They didn't hit a field goal in the final 3 minutes, 28 seconds, missed three free throws, failed to get a critical rebound, and allowed the Patriots good looks on a pair of three-pointers, including Luke Hancock's game-winner.
The offensive execution late in three of their closing six losses - to St. John's, South Florida, and George Mason - was dreadful. The Cats scored three points in the final four minutes against the Red Storm and connected for 20 and 22 second-half points against USF and Mason, respectively.
Of course, responsibility for the late-season swoon has to be shared among Wright, his staff, and his players. But the head coach said it won't compel him to evaluate every little detail of the program.
"I don't look at the season as disastrous," he said. "I look at it as some really tough breaks.
"I'm evaluating how we handle it - how the staff handles it, how the seniors handle it, what the young guys learn from it. As long as we come out and we play hard and we stick together and we never give up on a game and we never give up on a season, I feel like we're going to have a quality of players and a quality of people to contend for the Big East championship each year.
"And I still see that, so I'm not over-evaluating. I know we have JayVaughn [Pinkston] coming back next year. I know we have good recruits coming in. I know this sophomore class is going to get better. So it's a fair question, and I'm not done evaluating. But I won't be evaluating any more than I usually do."
After a 9-9 Big East season in which they tied for ninth place, the Wildcats need to rebuild a roster that will not have a single senior. Much will depend on the development of the five players on their roster who will be juniors in the fall.
However, the Wildcats are not alone. Quite a few teams that were successful this season have to retool their rosters as they try to maintain or improve their positions in the Big East.
Notre Dame and St. John's must replace their entire starting fives. Pittsburgh loses three key players, including Roman Catholic's Brad Wanamaker. Syracuse says good-bye to Neumann-Goretti's Rick Jackson, and junior Kris Joseph could declare for the NBA draft.
The 'Nova recruiting class is ranked No. 23 by ESPNU and sixth among Big East schools. Point guard Tyrone Johnson, of Montrose Christian School (Md.), is the Cats' top-ranked recruit, rated No. 55 by Rivals.com.
Pinkston was suspended by the university on Dec. 6 for his alleged assault on two students at a party. Although a trial date is pending, he is eligible to return to Villanova in June. He is expected to be joined by Johnson and three other incoming freshmen - 6-foot-5 Darrun Hilliard of Liberty High in Bethlehem, Pa.; 6-9 Markus Kennedy of Brewster (N.H.) Academy; and 6-4 guard Achraf Yacoubou of Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran. Kennedy is from Yeadon.
The Wildcats return five sophomores - Maalik Wayns, Mouphtaou Yarou, Dominic Cheek, Isaiah Armwood, and Maurice Sutton - plus freshman James Bell, who saw limited action while recovering from surgeries on both legs to relieve stress fractures.
Speaking outside the locker room Friday after his team's final defeat, Wright said that he thought more expectations had been placed on the seniors than on any other class and that he would feel bad if the public remembers their legacy as just the losing streak at the end.
"But those people also called them the greatest guys in the world when we went to the Final Four, too," he said. "That's a part of it. When you compete and you put yourself in the arena, you kind of deal with that. You don't want to, but that's what you have to handle."
Coming and Going
Villanova will have a major turnover on its roster next season. Here is a look at its incoming freshman class (plus others) and its outgoing senior class.
G/F Darrun Hilliard, 6-5, Bethlehem (Pa.) Liberty HS
G Tyrone Johnson, 6-2, Montrose Christian School (Md).
F Markus Kennedy, 6-9, Brewster Academy (N.H.)
G Achraf Yacoubou, 6-4, Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran HS
*F JayVaughn Pinkston, 6-7, Bishop Loughlin (N.Y.) HS
*Suspended for this season, eligible to return to university in June
G Corey Fisher, 6-1, 1,672 career points (12.1),
13th on Villanova all-time list
G/F Corey Stokes, 6-5, 1,315 career points (9.8), 32d
F Antonio Pena, 6-8, 1,100 career points (8.0), 50th
G Russell Wooten, 6-4, four career points.
2010-11 season scoring averages: Fisher 15.6, Stokes 14.9, Pena 9.8.
- Joe Juliano
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494