Jay Wright and his team often talk about playing "Villanova basketball" and of the core values that represents, but what does that mean, exactly?
Reporters let Jay Wright and his team get away with using the vague phrase, "play Villanova basketball," in post-game press conferences. "We just want to go out there and play Villanova basketball," or "we need to play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball," are the common platitudes uttered in just about any context to describe the broad strokes of what the Wildcats are trying to accomplish on the hardwood.
On Wednesday, reporters pushed for an answer: What is "Villanova basketball" anyway?
"Playing with a high intensity level, playing real unselfishly, playing intelligently and most importantly to play for the name on the front of the jersey and the name on the back," was the answer Wright offered.
According to the coach, those were the core values that his team has lacked for the past few seasons, culminating in missing the postseason for the first time after a seven year run in 2012. The Wildcats, he said, are getting back to those values this season.
"It was disappointing for us, more in terms of how we played and how we represented Villanova basketball more so than our record. We were in a lot of games . . . You could be a team that played true to your core values and lost close games, and still feel good about yourself. We weren't true to our core values, and that starts with us, the coaching staff.
"One of the things we've learned as a staff is that just because you're winning doesn't mean that the players understand why you're winning."
This season, the coach said, "I feel really good about our commitment to our core values." Noting his belief that he and his reconstructed staff are bringing the team around to the right way of thinking about and playing the game.
"[Y]ou realize within a program you're going to have some years like that and each year brings a new challenge. This year's challenge is we've got to get ourselves back to the top of the league. That part of it we're embracing."
The program is going to move on after a total disappointment in 2011-12. Wright said that last season was a learning experience for him as a coach and for his staff, that they realized that those core values of "Villanova basketball" couldn't be assumed and that having great players didn't mean you had the right players.
"It's not just getting great players [that matters in recruiting], but making sure we understand why the great players want to come," he explained. "When we started getting some success everybody wanted to come, it was easy, and maybe we got a little lazy in not researching [. . .] and maybe we got a little lazy as a staff not teaching them when they got there what the standards are."
He didn't mention any former players by name when discussing that, and he refused to put any blame on his players rather than himself and his staff.
Wright is hoping that player improvement, a little more maturity and a back-to-basics coaching staff will help turn things back to the "Villanova basketball" that he has defined. Last year's freshmen look different; JayVaughn Pinkston lost a lot of weight, Ty Johnson is a better shooter, he said, and James Bell is stronger and healthier.
Bell, like Pinkston, lost some weight in the offseason, but remains a strong player who hopes that shedding a few pounds will allow him to play faster and harder than before.
"Everything that you hoped would have happened to this point has."
Partially, the benefit was in being able to work with the players over the summer in one-on-one workouts.
"I think that put everybody a step ahead, because we see what coach wants from us, we see how he pushes us, and it has just helped us flow into the season," Bell said. "Practice wasn't a shock to anybody, coaches weren't a shock to anybody."
Wright believes his team has plenty of depth, depending on how they handle injuries during the season. According to the coach, Villanova could be 9-deep on it's game roster this season, and he's excited about that thought.
"I really like where [Johnson] is right now. He can play both guard spots right now, Tony Chennault can play both guard spots, Ryan Arcidiacono can play both guard spots, I like the flexibility that those guys can give us.
"Like I said, I think we've got some good depth and how those young guys play in terms of their experience is going to determine how good we are."
Ryan Arcidiacono is reportedly playing like he hadn't missed a game last season, even though he sat out his entire high school senior season after back surgery. Tony Chennault is still the same player that Wright was recruiting out of high school a few years ago, but brings maturity and experience to the backcourt.
One area where improvement is expected is outside shooting. The Wildcats were awful from the perimeter last season, but Wright believes that a few factors will help tilt things back to normal on the Main Line.
"[Maalik Wayns] had to take bad shots for us because we weren't a very good shooting team," he explained. "I think the opposite is going to come into play for us this year because Ryan Arcidiacono is a very good shooter, James Bell is a very good shooter — and he was hurt a lot; Mouph[ Yarou]'s actually a good shooter, he does that. Darrun Hilliard is a very good shooter, he didn't shoot well last year, but he will shoot well and has been shooting well this year. Ty Johnson has become a better shooter.
"So when you add good shooters, it makes it easier on everybody."
In addition to being given the green light to take jump shots from midrange like Dante Cunningham, Yarou is also expected to be a force on the boards.
"I think [Yarou is] going to be one of the best rebounders in the league, I really do. I think he's going to be one of the best rebounders in the country."
The strength of the Wildcats, of "Guard U," will actually be in the front court. Wright considers his group of Yarou, Mo Sutton, James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and freshman Daniel Ochefu to be among the best front court groups he has ever had. They have the depth, experience, and — Wright hopes — talent to compete in the Big East.
Pinkston was an emerging star last season, but we may not have seen the best of him yet. He spent his summer working out, dropping at least 20 pounds.
"He's lost a lot of weight, he's in great shape, he's improved his conditioning, he's improved his perimeter shooting. He's just really worked on his entire body, his game, his commitment level, he's matured a year."
Last season he was set-back by spending a year away from the game. He couldn't practice, watch games, or learn in any way from the program. It was worse, than being out for a season with an injury, Wright said.
"He was rusty last year, he was definitely rusty, but I think it was a great year for him. You'll see this year he is a much better basketball player."
Wright is hoping that these players have made big enough strides in the offseason and that they can avoid a similar fate to his last three teams. His new additions, which he said, "can help us right away," have been a pleasant surprise as well.
The Villanova head coach presented a positive outlook at media day, and who can blame him. If his assessment is an honest one, however, things should at least be moving in the right direction.