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Villanova Needs Muscle

March. Warmer weather, extended daylight, and of course, college basketball. Unfortunately for me, my Villanova Wildcats are withering away as the NCAA postseason approaches.

For the second year in row, Jay Wright’s Wildcats stormed out of the gates only to struggle late in the season. Last year, Villanova was one-and-done in the Big East Tournament. Amazingly, they managed to play worse in the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, barely beating #15 Robert Morris in round one before eventually falling in the second round to St. Mary’s.

Currently, Villanova is riding a three game losing streak and has lost seven of its past eleven games, all in the Big East. Saturday is the season finale against a tough Pittsburgh team in Pittsburgh. It’s likely Villanova heads into the 2011 Big East Tournament on a four game skid.

I’m more of an NBA fan myself, but I’ve followed Villanova since Kerry Kittles’ knee-high socks. What’s frustrated me more than anything, especially in the Jay Wright era, is the lousy interior play. It takes two fingers to count the talented interior players Villanova has had in the past decade; Curtis Sumpter and Dante Cunningham.

Sumpter was a key player on the ’04-’05 team that WOULD HAVE upset North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, Villanova didn’t advance because the officials decided otherwise. (It’s still not a travel.) Sadly, Sumpter blew out his knee the next year and was redshirted. Had he played, Villanova may have advanced past the Elite Eight in 2006, but I digress.

As Sumpter moved on, Dante Cunningham stepped in. With the exception of Scottie Reynolds, Cunningham was Villanova’s most reliable player as it made a surprise appearance in the Sweet 16 in 2008 and completed an epic run to the Final Four in 2009. Cunningham was neither oversized nor overpowering, but his athleticism and determination enabled him to succeed against stronger opponents.

That brings us to the here and now. Last year’s late season collapse combined with this season’s struggles prove Villanova’s need for a monster inside. It’s no coincidence that Sumpter and Cunningham were a part of the most successful teams under Jay Wright. I understand Wright likes to build his teams around guards. It worked in 2006 when he had two NBA caliber guards (Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye) and a third fringe NBA talent (Allen Ray).  However, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Maalik Wayns are not on that level. The same was true for Reynolds.

Villanova’s guards need help. Obviously, they’re not going to knock down threes every night over the course of a season. On nights they’re off, Fisher and Wayns are talented enough to attack the rim. However, when they can’t hit from the outside, defenses simply collapse and clog the lane, making it difficult to generate offense. This defensive style has suffocated Villanova over the past month as its guards have struggled from the outside.

For the second consecutive season, Villanova is strictly an outside team. There isn’t a single interior player that demands respect from the opponent. Stop Villanova’s guards and you stop Villanova. Cunningham carried the team when Reynolds was off. Sumpter did the same when called upon. Right now, there’s no one to help Villanova’s guards. They’re alone, forced to create offense against double and even triple teams.

I won’t be surprised if/when Villanova fails to win a game in the Big East Tournament or advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I simply hope Jay Wright sees why his two most recent teams have faltered down the stretch. As the season drags on fatigue sets in, defenses step up, and talented big men are necessary to wear down opponents and free up smaller, quicker guards. Fisher, Stokes, and Wayns are currently “bigmanless.” As a result, they’ve been forced to go three on five in the nation’s best, deepest, and grittiest conference.

Only Wayns will be back next year. I hope Jay Wright brings him some muscle.

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