Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Waiting Game

“I’m not even mad… That’s amazing.” That’s how Anchorman Ron Burgundy felt after his dog Baxter ate a whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator. I feel the exact same way about Villanova’s late season collapse and their most recent one-point loss to South Florida. I just stared in shock at the way Nova played during that second half at Madison Square Garden. When Maalik Wayns’ potential buzzer beating shot rimmed off the basket, I wasn’t angry, it was more a feeling of awe and confusion. How did this Wildcats team, ranked nationally in the top-10 for much of the season, spiral out of control and end up on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament?

Villanova played like that top-10 team in the first half against the Bulls, taking a 16-point lead into halftime. However, the team that came out of that locker room was the one that has lost five games in a row and is continually finding new ways to lose each night. Some of it is bad luck, like the injury to Mouphtaou Yarou against the worst team possible, the tall athletic front court of South Florida. Or the knee tendentious that has been nagging Corey Fisher for a month. Or the hamstring and turf toe injuries that caused Corey Stokes to miss games. Or the back spasms that plagued Maalik Wayns. Or the knee injury back in January that Dominic Cheek hasn’t played the same since. These injuries are unfortunate, and there’s not a whole lot Jay Wright or anyone else can do about them. Injuries happen. It’s just a simple case of bad luck.

But then there’s the team’s inability to execute down the stretch of close games, which Jay Wright and his players absolutely can control. Villanova shot a perfect 20 for 20 from the free throw line until the final 48 seconds of the game, when they missed the front end of a 1-and-1 TWICE. Then there was the inbounds lob pass thrown up for grabs under the other team’s basket. Then there was the crater-sized opening left in the lane for Anthony Crater to drive to the basket for the winning layup. These are careless mistakes that well-coached, experienced teams should not make.

So where is that experience and leadership to take over at the end of these close games? Well that player is supposed to be preseason Wooden Award finalist, All-Big East 2nd Team player, senior guard and leading scorer, Corey Fisher. And he… WASN’T EVEN ON THE FLOOR FOR THE FINAL SEQUENCE OF THE GAME. This knee injury must be a lot worse than anybody thought it was, that Jay Wright wouldn’t trust his senior leader and all-around best player to get a defensive stop with the game on the line. Fisher put up decent enough stats (15 points, 3 assists), but watching him play, you can tell that something just wasn’t right. At first it simply appeared to be the case of a shooting slump, with 3-16, 1-10, 3-14 performances from the field over the past few games. Then the news came that Fisher was suffering from knee tendentious. But why should a knee injury affect his shooting stroke?

When you look closer, you’ll see that the injury has changed Fisher’s entire style of play. All season long, Fisher got to the free throw line about eight times per game, while taking about four 3-pointers. Over the past month, his free throw attempts and 3-point attempts per game have interchanged. Fisher’s bread and butter is driving to the basket and attacking defenders with his signature “Fisher Price” mid-air acrobatic moves. With the knee injury, he doesn’t have the athleticism to do that anymore, so he is settling for long jumpers, which has never been the strength of his game. Watching Fisher against USF, whenever he drove to the basket, he would dish the ball to avoid contact, rather than trying to draw a foul. The real issue isn’t that Fisher is missing so many 3-pointers (0-8, 0-8, 3-8, 1-8, 1-4), it’s that he’s being forced to attempt that many in the first place. Fisher has made just NINE free throws through this five-game losing streak, an amount that he would easily make in a single game earlier this season. It’s a shame Fisher’s injury had to happen now, when he was in the midst of a fantastic final season, but it’s time we exit the denial phase. Once we the fans, the team, the coaches, and Fisher himself acknowledge that this injury is significant and is having a negative impact on the team, we can begin to try to figure out how to overcome it.

Jay Wright’s system is designed around the point guard. It’s been described as the “take ‘em” offense. He relies on his point guards to run plays and create shots for themselves and others using the dribble drive. This worked great in 2006 when he had four great point guards (Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray, and Mike Nardi), and the team went to the Elite 8. It can even work with just two great point guards (Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher), as we saw two years ago in the run to Final 4. And it worked earlier this season with the combination of Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns. The problem is that now, with Fisher’s injury, the team really only has one and a half point guards, and that one is still just a sophomore. If Villanova does make the NCAA Tournament, Jay Wright will have to fundamentally change his offensive philosophy for the team to have any chance of winning a game. How do you do that?

You can start by taking some notes from the Notre Dame and South Florida playbooks and start setting screens for Corey Stokes on the perimeter. Both teams made an effort through set plays to get open looks for thier sharpshooters, Tim Abromaitis (9-13 3PT vs. Nova) and Shaun Noriega (6-12 3PT vs. Nova). Stokes made 3 of 6 from downtown and scored 16 points in the first half against USF. As Justin Timberlake would say, “Six 3-pointers isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Twelve 3-pointers.” If Jay Wright can figure out a way to get Stokes twelve shots a game from behind the arc, he will likely make at least half of them. Guess how many shots Stokes got off in that atrocious second half collapse against South Florida… ONE… And he missed it. And you wonder why Nova made only four field goals and zero 3-pointers in the second half of that game. With Fisher banged up and Wayns inexperienced, the offense needs to center around the best shooter on the team, Corey Stokes. The good news is Jay Wright has over a week to adjust his system in preparation for the NCAA Tournament, if they are lucky enough to earn a bid.

Which brings us to the ultimate question… Will Villanova make the Big Dance? Fortunately for now, most experts say yes. Nova’s body of work is impressive enough, though losing their last five games will certainly hurt their seeding. Heck, even St. Joe’s alum and ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats still in the Dance, albeit as an 11-seed. Nova appears to be safe for now, but with conference tournaments running throughout the country, you never know what upsets may loom. For now, it’s the waiting game. Villanova will have to sit in anticipation to hear if their name is called on Selection Sunday, and who knows, maybe that will be just enough time for Yarou's face and ribs, Stokes' hamstring and toe, Cheek's knee, Wayns' back, and Fisher's knee to heal. One could hope.

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