After the Wildcats lost to eventual champion North Carolina in the semis, Reynolds put his name in for the draft without hiring an agent. It was during his seven-team round of workouts that he finally realized he could trust Wright, and after consulting with NBA coaches and general managers, he decided to return for his senior season. "In every situation I was in, I found myself applying something Coach Wright had taught me," says Reynolds, who through Sunday was averaging 18.9 points and 3.3 assists and hitting 40.9% of his threes. "Everything he says to me now, I know it's making me a better player."
Wright believes he finally has the kind of relationship with Reynolds that Hall had. "He knows exactly what I'm thinking, what I want done," the coach says. "I've never had a guy [like him, with whom] I don't have to say a word." That's not all: Because of Reynolds, Wright is now more willing to go after high-profile recruits, such as the four top 50 players in this year's Villanova freshman class. "Scottie has given me faith that even great players can remain humble and grounded," he says.
At Texas, James joined a blockbuster class that included current NBA players Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin. The school had been his top choice before he met Sampson and Reynolds, so he knew the players and the staff. He fit right in.
But like Reynolds, James had trouble connecting with his new coach, Rick Barnes. James was a starter from the get-go, setting screens, grabbing rebounds and adding his inside power and outside touch to a high-octane offense. But Barnes thought James lacked consistency. The coach rode James hard, stopping film sessions to point out mistakes. "Who is this?" he'd say, pointing his laser. "How can we be this bad? Does this person not care?" James would drop his head. "I was probably harder on Damion than on any of the others," says Barnes, "because he was going to be our main post guy, the enforcer."
Before the game at Oklahoma in James's sophomore year, Barnes shooed everyone out of the locker room but James and launched into a help-me-help-you talk. James said, "Coach, I'm sorry that I've disappointed you. I'm sorry I'm not the kind of player you want me to be." Barnes felt a lump in his throat. Then James confessed that Barnes's use of profanity, which is an invitation to fight in the projects, bothered him.
"I realized then, I don't have a clue what my job is," says Barnes. "I had gotten so caught up in winning, I wasn't helping him at all. All he had ever done was try." Barnes promised James that he'd quit cursing. (By all accounts he has.) The next day James thanked him. Since then they have grown close. "Damion has taught me a lot," says Barnes.
After averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds his junior year, James too put his name in for the draft but didn't hire an agent. Not even Barnes expected him to return to Austin. Yet he did, having heard the same message from NBA coaches and G.M.'s that Reynolds heard: First show us that you can be a leader. "He listened," says Barnes. "Most kids don't." Ask anyone at Eastwood Terrace: James, who will be just five units short of an education degree this spring, is—like his friend Reynolds—the exception.
Villanova reached No. 2 in the polls after starting 20--1; since then it has gone 3--3 and dropped to No. 9 on March 1. Without Reynolds, who has bailed the Wildcats out again and again, the record would be far worse. "We always struggle when we have young guys," says Wright. "I was really anticipating that this year. But Scottie just takes over in the second half." Through Sunday, Reynolds has averaged 7.0 points in the first half in Big East games, 13.3 in the second.
Texas's slide has been more precipitous. After a 17--0 start earned the school its first-ever No. 1 ranking on Jan. 18, the Longhorns had lost seven of 12 games at week's end and dropped out of the poll. With freshmen often running the backcourt, it's been more difficult for James to rescue Texas, but he has tried. He leads the team in points (17.5 per game), rebounds (10.3) and steals (1.66).
"He has had a phenomenal year," says Barnes. "He has really embraced the game. Now he'll even point things out—'Coach, we could set a screen like this.' In the past he never said a word."