NCAA tournament hero Reynolds returns to lead inexperienced 'Nova
Villanova won't be close to a Big East title team until later in the season
Scottie Reynolds almost went to Oklahoma, but is now the heart and soul of 'Nova
Corey Stokes made huge strides in offseason and is team's most improved player
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- For the entertainment portion of their Hoops Mania event on Oct. 23, Villanova's players performed a version of Michael Jackson's Thriller with the school's dance team, and as the Wildcats' senior leader, Scottie Reynolds defaulted into the front-row, "Michael" position, flanked by two females whose moves were more fluid, and less tentative. The YouTube of record doesn't reveal it to be a debacle, but the mere mention of it causes Reynolds to wince. "I really should have learned my steps better," he says. "Everybody else could blend in and follow somebody, but there was just no room for error up front. And I messed up a few times. I missed the shot on that one."
Despite Reynolds' perceived breakdown in dance-leadership, it would take far more than the Thriller affair to damage his pressure-situation reputation. Seven months ago, in Boston, he made Villanova's biggest shot in 24 years, a last-second leaner to beat Pitt and send the 'Cats to their first Final Four since 1985. The shot made Reynolds a 'Nova hero, and it'll forever be central to his identity. When I ask him, before practice on Tuesday, if he can find anything to critique about that clip; he says that, maybe, he wishes he hadn't put his hands up, confusedly, for a split-second after making the shot. But he's only nitpicking.
"I wouldn't change the actual play," he clarifies. "It was one of those spur-of-the-moment, instinct things, and you don't want to change your instincts."
In that way, Reynolds' signature highlight was quintessentially Villanovan: coach Jay Wright's teams have been defined by backcourt players making unscripted magic. And Reynolds is now considered an archetypal Villanova guard, even though he never considered attending the school until Kelvin Sampson, the coach of his original college choice, Oklahoma, left for Indiana in the spring of '06.
Who knows what would have happened had Sampson's top two recruits -- Reynolds and current Texas star Damion James -- played for new coach Jeff Capel in Norman, rather than ask for their releases. Capel's '08-09 team might have featured Reynolds at the point, Willie Warren at shooting guard, Damion James at small forward, and Blake and Taylor Griffin in the post. The Sooners made the Elite Eight with far less of a supporting cast around Blake. They might have won a national title with that supercharged lineup.
That thought crossed Reynolds' mind when Oklahoma came within one win of meeting 'Nova in the Final Four, a scenario he dreaded due to the media "mayhem" it would have created. "That would have been a good team," he says of the hypothetical Sooners. "I wouldn't have not wanted to be on that team ... but I wouldn't trade what we've gone through [at Villanova]."
Villanova was the team that needed Reynolds more. Wright says he has "no idea" where his program would be without Reynolds; Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry jumped to the NBA after the Wildcats' '06 trip to the Elite Eight, and they were facing an extremely shaky backcourt future until Gary Hall, the coach at Herndon (Va.) High School, called Wright that April and asked, "Have you ever heard of Scottie Reynolds? Because he really likes Villanova."
Wright's team had beaten Oklahoma in December, a game that Reynolds had watched -- and remembered well enough to give the 'Cats a shot at him while LSU was also coming on strong in the spring. "Getting Scottie was total luck," Wright said. "It took all of 24 hours of recruiting. We had a McDonald's All-American fall into our lap."
Reynolds would go on to lead them in scoring in Big East play as a freshman, take them to the Sweet 16 as a sophomore, and then a Final Four as a junior. His legacy would've been fine without a senior encore, but now that he's back after pulling out of the NBA draft -- where he wasn't a lock to be selected in either round -- there are fans who believe a national title is within reach.
Just how realistic are those hopes? At Tuesday's practice I saw a team that will have to rely on plenty of inexperienced pieces after its excellent backcourt core of Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Reggie Redding (who's suspended until mid-December). Four members of its rotation -- sleeper freshman big man Mouphtaou Yarou, McDonald's All-Americans Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns, and Duke transfer Taylor King -- have never played a Big East game, and junior forward Antonio Pena won't seamlessly fill the hole that departed overachiever Dante Cunningham played in the post, leading the team in points, rebounds and possessions used.
That inexperience showed in a closed scrimmage against George Washington last week, in which the Colonials -- who were picked to finish 13th (out of 14) in the Atlantic-10 preseason poll -- beat the Wildcats in two of three 20-minute periods. Wright said his team was "sloppy" and lacked aggressiveness in its private debut.
I don't expect Villanova to look even like a Big East title team in November and December. But I did see enough positives to think that by NCAA tournament time, they'll be very dangerous once again. Yarou, who came to the U.S. from Benin in 2008, has a surprising amount of polish to his game, and could develop into the best big man Wright's ever had; Wayns looked confident enough to play quality minutes as Fisher's backup at the point; King and Cheek's long-range shooting ability mean Stokes (who shot 41.8 percent last season) is no longer their lone, legit three-point threat on the wing.
And -- most important of all -- the Wildcats have a starting backcourt of all seasoned upperclassmen, something that four of the five teams earning first-place votes in the Associated Press preseason poll (Kansas, Kentucky, Texas and North Carolina) cannot claim. Reynolds and 'Nova should be in Indianapolis in April, and once they're there, whom would you bet on -- some blue-chip freshman, or a guy who was already the star of last year's One Shining Moment montage?
Herewith, my full assessment of Villanova:
Heart and Soul: Reynolds. Wright hopes this is the year Fisher (who averaged 10.8 points and 2.8 assists and won the Big East Sixth Man of the Year award as a sophomore) steps up as an aggressive starting point guard, but no matter what happens, this is still Reynolds' team. He mentored Fisher for the past two seasons, and has taken a big role in bringing their stellar recruiting class up to speed. Wright said that when he called back to the office during one recruiting trip in September, he was told that Reynolds had a trio of freshmen -- Cheek, Wayns and Isaiah Armwood -- in the video room, teaching them defensive schemes.
Most Improved: Stokes. His big offensive jump came last season, when he improved on his freshman three-point clip by 12.2 percent and finished with a 115.3 efficiency rating -- the best on the team. Now, Wright is excited about the prospect of Stokes finally being a consistent defensive presence, as an imposing beast (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) on the perimeter. "We thought we could win games last year by putting Reggie Redding on teams' go-to guys," says Wright, "but this year we feel like we can win by putting Stokes on their go-to guys."
X-Factor: Yarou. Don't fall into the trap of thinking he'll look like the Big East's last African star, UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, did as a freshman. Yarou is way ahead of that, skill-wise, which is a good thing, because at 6-10 and 250 pounds, he's the only true big guy Villanova has. The question is how well he he'll adjust to the speed at which the Wildcats' guards like to play. If he's a passable rebounder/defender in the post as a freshman, they'll contend in the Big East; if he's a stellar rebounder/defender and a double-digit scorer, they'll be in the thick of the national-title race.
Glue Guy: Redding. I could only witness his gluey effect on the scout team, because he's out until December -- and stripped of his senior-year captaincy -- as a result of being busted with a small amount of marijuana over the summer. He's really the perfect complement to Reynolds and Fisher, a guy who's content to play D and facilitate the offense rather than score. "He's been killing [the starters] in practice," Wright says of Redding. "No matter who we put on the white [scout] team with him, he glues them together."
Lost in the Shuffle: Armwood. He's a four-star prospect just like Cheek and Wayns, but the 6-7 Armwood weighs just 205 pounds, and I get the sense that he might need at least a year before he's ready to play on the interior in the Big East. He's athletic enough to play on the wing, but that's unfortunately a crowded position: King (who'll either start as a perimeter four or be a sixth man), Stokes, Redding and Cheek are all ahead of Armwood in that part of the rotation.
Bottom Line: This team needs to do some growing, but could eventually be as good as any of the national title contenders -- other than Kansas. Even Reynolds has room to refine his game: His heroics overshadowed the fact that he shot 45.4 percent from inside the arc as a junior -- not a great number -- and was only the fifth-most efficient offensive player on his team. I suspect that the presence of added weapons on the outside (as well as Yarou commanding defenders inside) will make Reynolds' percentages in the paint increase over the course of the season. When it comes to crunch time, he's already capable of making those stats seem irrelevant.
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