Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

USA TODAY Sports

After three long years, the excitement is finally back on the Mainline.

For over thirty-five years, my wife, Stephanie, has tried unsuccessfully to teach me to string together ten simple words –"I’m sorry. I was wrong. I won’t do it again." As much as I am incapable of uttering those words to my wife, it is even harder to say them my favorite sports team, the Wildcats of Villanova.

There was very little need for an apology during the first eight years of Jay Wright's tenure on the Mainline, as I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of the Cats eight consecutive post-season appearances, which included two Sweet Sixteens, one Elite Eight and a Final Four. The winds began to shift after the 2008-2009 season. Scottie Reynolds headlined a roster filled with players who had been important parts of Villanova’s Final Four team. An already strong roster was fortified by four new faces –Mouph Yarou, Dominic Cheek, Maalik Wayns and Isaiah Armwood -- who together represented the second best recruiting class in the nation. Life was good and we were thinking about a second national title on the Mainline.

The Cats were world beaters for the first 9 games of the 2009-2010 season. Temple would hand then #3 Villanova its first defeat by a ten point margin behind 8,449 screaming fans at Liacouras Center and the unconscious three-point shooting of Juan Fernandez. The Cats shook-off that loss and reeled off 11 consecutive wins, rising to the #2 ranking in the country. However, it all came crashing down on February 6 at the Verizon Center, where 10,000 Hoya fans braved blizzard conditions to cheer on then #7 Georgetown to a 103-90 win. The Cats went 4-5 over the final nine games of conference play and lost 76-80 to Marquette in the first round of the Big East Tournament. Yet, like the prior eight Jay Wright-coached Villanova teams, the 2009-10 team would see post season play. In the first round, they needed overtime to defeat an overmatched Robert Morris team, squeaking by with a 73-70 win. The Scottie Reynolds era ended with a thud in the second round at the hands of a decent but not great St. Mary’s team, 68-75, in a game that never felt that close.

The 2010-2011 team seemed to be doing fine notwithstanding the losses of Scottie Reynolds to graduation and JayVaughn Pinkston, to suspension following a fraternity brawl. The Cats won sixteen of their first seventeen games, losing only at Tennessee. They rode an eleven game winning streak and #7 national ranking into Storrs to face #10 UConn on Martin Luther King Day. The Cats got off to a horrendous start in that one, trailing 0-10 before clawing their way back to tie the game at 17. The game was a see-saw battle the rest of the way, ending with a dagger to the hearts of ‘Nova fans as Kemba Walker broke a 59-59 tie with a jumper with only two seconds remaining. The Cats bounced-back the next game with a memorable win against then #3 Syracuse before a record crowd at the Carrier Dome behind 21 points from Maalik Wayns. From that point on, the Cats sputtered, suffering a pair of losses followed by a pair of wins followed by another pair of losses followed by another pair of wins. The last of that series was a two-point overtime win over a terrible DePaul team. The Cats would never taste victory again that season, closing out with six straight losses including a four point loss to George Mason in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Villanova fans were becoming increasingly critical of Coach Jay Wright as the highly-touted recruiting class of Yarou, Wayns, Cheek and Armwood failed, up to that point, to deliver on their promise of greatness. The 2011-2012 season got off to a rough start even before Villanova's students returned to campus for the fall semester. Team captain, Isaiah Armwood, started every game of Villanova's exhibition trip to France and the Netherlands that August, but saw his playing time limited in favor of freshman JayVaughn Pinkston. Seeing the writing on the wall, Jay Wright and Armwood agreed that it was best for him to pursue his basketball career elsewhere. Without Isaiah, the Cats headed west for 76 Classic in Anaheim over the Thanksgiving holiday. That trip would prove disastrous. After blowing away an awful UC Riverside team, the Cats lost by a dozen points to St. Louis. Facing Santa Clara (RPI 294) in the consolation game, the Cats were stunned by a 10-0 Santa Clara run over the closing 90 seconds and suffered an embarrassing 65-64 loss. The Cats never recovered, going 6-12 in Big East play and missing the post-season for the first time in the Jay Wright era.

The frustration of the Villanova faithful was palpable, and the talking heads seemed to agree. It would become conventional wisdom that Jay Wright had lost his mojo. They would have us believe that he had forgotten how to coach. He filled his coaching staff with yes-men. He was out-recruited for top ten players by the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Syracuse time and time again.

Never were there expectations lower for a Jay Wright Villanova team than in the 2012-13 season, despite the addition of three promising recruits -- Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and Mislav Brzoja plus transfers Tony Chennault and Dylan Ennis. Things again got off to troubling start. A CBS Sports poll in August listed Jay Wright as college basketball’s fifth most overrated coach, quoting an anonymous Big East coach saying, "Jay Wright is the only coach we never prepared a scouting report for." The bad news continued with the hiring and resignation of Assistant Coach Doug Martin in the same week after embellishments were discovered in his resume. Jay Wright quickly replaced Martin with University of Washington assistant Raphael Chillious, and added former Villanova great, Curtis Sumpter as Student-Athlete Development Assistant. He pledged a return to hard-nosed Villanova basketball. The ‘Nova faithful remained skeptical, a sentiment reinforced by Tyrone Johnson’s decision in November to follow Markus Kennedy to greener pastures far from Lancaster Avenue.

Villanova started the 2012-13 season with four losses over its first eight games, including an inexcusable 18 point loss to lowly Columbia at the Pavilion and second half collapses against LaSalle and Temple. The Cats then showed some life by reeling off seven straight wins, including an overtime victory over a very young St. John’s team at the Pavilion and solid win over an undermanned South Florida team in Tampa. Things would take another ugly turn with losses at Syracuse, at home against Pittsburgh, and a particularly embarrassing loss at Providence. Bleacher report acknowledged the streak by listing Jay Wright among the five NCAA basketball coaches who most desperately needed an change of scenery.

Facing seemingly impossible games against #5 Louisville and #3 Syracuse, Villanova fans were conceding the inevitability of defeat and a now all too familiar downward spiral over the remainder of the season. However, a funny thing happened at the Louisville game. In front of a surprisingly sparse Wachovia crowd, Villanova played hard nosed, smart basketball, achieving the unthinkable by beating a heavily-favored #5 Louisville team that had been ranked #1 the week before. The long-suffering Villanova fans released three years of frustration by storming the court. On Saturday, lightening struck a second time in one week with the Cats again playing hard nosed, smart basketball, hitting a dramatic three pointer in the closing seconds to force overtime against #3 Syracuse and eventually winning 74-71. Again, the fans stormed the court. It was the first time Villanova had faced the test of two top five teams in one week. They passed with flying colors. Along the way, the same coach who some had said could not distinguish an X from an O outcoached one Hall of Fame coach and another sure to get there someday.

Was this past week an inflection point or an aberration? Honestly, I don’t know. The important thing is the magic is back, the team is fun to watch again and Villanova fans can once more look to the future with optimism. With a starting lineup that features two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in its first six, the future looks brighter than at any time since the 2009-2010 season.

So for doubting you, Coach Wright and your outstanding young team, I have only one thing to say: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I won’t do it again. May I ask only that you please not tell my wife.

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