Villanova just ended the third 19-loss season in program history, among the worst seasons the school's basketball program has ever produced. The Wildcats were never supposed to have a great year in 2011-12, but many expected that they would be competitive in the Big East conference and maybe compete for a lower-seed in the NCAA tournament. Neither of those things happened.
"I knew going into this year that if everything went well, we might be a bubble team, if everything went well," head coach Jay Wright claimed.
Everything didn't go well, in fact, it mostly went in the opposite direction.
"We just never, never got into a rhythm as a team where the roles were defined," He explained. "Right from the start of the season, we started playing one way and we got into a rut, it wasn't working. We changed.
"We're just not that good yet."
"It was constantly trying to find a rhythm as a team. Some of it was decision-making, some of it was injuries, some of it was inexperience."
Almost every program has its down years. UNC missed the NCAA tournament the year after winning the 2009 national championship. Syracuse missed the tournament twice after winning their title.
"Nobody's bigger than the game," Wright said. "There's no reason why we can't go through this. Everybody's been through it. All the great programs have been through it. It's not fun. You don't want to go through it, but you can't say, 'why me, poor me,' because this is what we do. You have to respect the game."
The great teams bounce back from these sort of seasons, however.
Villanova was constantly in a state of flux this season, never quite settling down into a groove and carrying a degree of certainty going forward. Programs can change the way they operate during a season and succeed, but not constantly and only rarely dramatically.
"I think its always frustrating when you're a coach because you want to get your team to a point where they're really clicking, and executing, and that's something that we could never get to," Wright reflected. "We were always trying different line-ups, then we'd get a little something going and someone would get hurt and we'd change the line-up, a different guy would get hurt and we'd change the line-up again."
Those line-up changes ultimately led to Mo Sutton going from near-zero minutes to a starting role by the end of the season, and it saw James Bell move in and out of the starting line-up. It wasn't easy keeping track of the changes to that line-up from game-to-game.
In the process, the junior class was asked to learn quickly what it meant to be the go-to players that was devoid of leadership back in October. Wright believe that they will continue to improve as they fit into that role.
"I think they'll be much better go-to guys and much better leaders. I'd have liked it to happen quicker during the season, but I thought at the end of the year, Mouph found his way."
Villanova showed some small signs of improvement during the season, and their coach made references to it consistently during post-game press conferences. The improvement was mostly on the defensive side for the young Wildcats, while they struggled offensively to battle against tough opponents.
"Finally, the last four games we battled defensively," the coach exasperated.
"I think we got a little bit better defensively, I think they understand that in a game like [USF], you're just not going to come out and outscore a team like this, you've got to grind with a team like this. You've got to stop them. I do think we learned a lot defensively, I think we have a chance to be a good defensive team next year.
"I think Mo Sutton really made us a better defensive team, and he's still got a lot to learn."
With no postseason tournaments to prepare for, the process of learning from this seasons mistakes starts immediately for Villanova.
"We’re going to have to work real hard to be better," Wright said. "You’re going to have to work real hard to be a team that can be a .500 team in the Big East. That's a good team, a .500 team — you look at these teams that are 8-10, they're going to go in the NCAA tournament."
The Wildcats didn't quit this season. They weren't quite ready to close out games or beat tough opponents, but they also weren't prepared to give up.
"A lot of our games, we'll foul at the end and try to win and so the scores look worse and our stats look worse, but we know we've played with them. The only game we weren’t in was Syracuse, and we still battled to the end, we didn’t quit, we got it to 13. We’re not that far but it still takes a lot of work. It’s not a given just because everybody comes back you’re going to be there."
There were a lot of mistakes this season, key for Villanova moving forward is to learn from those mistakes and to move on.
"I think they learned that all the guys before them were a lot more committed to detail and not just playing off their talent than they realized, than these guys realize," Wright claimed.
"These guys, when they were recruited, they watched great players win, and it looked like those great players were just out there playing. But they were out there playing because they were very, very disciplined and they were given freedom because they were disciplined. They came in here and we won and the older guys were disciplined. Now they’re starting to realize, ‘You know what, there’s a lot more to it than just being talented.’
"I think they definitely learned that this year. It’s not like they fought it. I just think this group had to learn it the hard way. I’m sorry to say that."
Part of the team's problem is that, few of the juniors, intended to be leaders on the team, just weren't where they were supposed to be by this point. Neither James Bell nor JayVaughn Pinkston, who both should be sophomores (Pinkston's suspension makes him a freshman), was really able to develop in the way they needed to from last fall either.
"Each guy has a unique story why they're not where they are [supposed to be], you know, and its not all their own fault," explained Wright. "Mouph's a good example, he didn't play all his freshman year and he's only played a certain number of years, and he's starting to come into his own and find out what his game is."
Wright believes that the Wildcats will be better next year. How much better can they be? Should fans expect a national championship?
"I don't think its going to be dramatic, but I do think those three [juniors] really have never been go-to guys, and they've all been go-to guys this year. Some handle it better than others at different times."
Wright had to be a teacher rather than a coach at times this year. The injuries piled up and everyone down to walk-ons like Dallas Ouano was suffering. Wright would have liked to tighten the screws and give his players a case of tough love like his mentor, Rollie Massimino did by benching his starters in the second half of a game in Pittsburgh in 1985.
"[T]here was a lot of times where we didn't have enough players to practice," he noted. "There were times that Baker [Dunleavy] was practicing, we just had so many guys hurt, I knew they had to play, they knew they had to play, so I had to teach in a different way."
"I was probably more understanding, more of a teacher, which slowed our progress."
A big part of the Wildcats' problem, and especially as they began to develop a little defensively, was streaky and inconsistent shooting performances. Wright took the blame for those poor performances, citing the multiple offensive changes that he made during the season that threw his guys timing and instincts off.
"I think a part of shooting is being comfortable in your offense," he said. "All season we were changing our offenses when different guys got hurt. So I really do think when you are comfortable in your offense you shoot better, and I do think that guys can improve as shooters in the offseason."
One of those shooters that Wright believes will improve is Dominic Cheek, who will be relied upon for perimeter shooting next year. Cheek will have to improve his game from beyond the arc. According to the coach, that means learning better shot-selection and how to use screens better.
Wright was impressed with how he developed defensively, but doesn't think that his junior off-guard is made in the same mold as backcourt stars of Villanova's past.
"He's different than the guards we've had here. I think he can get to be a defensive player like those guys, but he's never going to be a breakdown guy. He's going to be a guy who has to use screens, we're going to have to set screens for him more, catch-and-shoot kind of guy."
Cheek isn't the only player who has work to do. Almost every player on the team will have to develop in the off-season as well. James Bell, for example, will need to get more confident in his offensive game and settle into a role on the offense. Markus Kennedy has work to do on his free-throw shooting, among other things; he went 1-0f-16 from the charity stripe in 2011-12.
"We'll do a lot of individual work," in the off-season, Wright said. "I think we have players that can develop a lot more, I think we've got guys who are raw that can get a lot better, and I think we'll bond more as a team.
"I think the freshmen will get a little tighter, the upperclassmen will get to be better leaders. It's an all-around feeling as a team, I think we'll improve."