PHILADELPHIA — Maalik Wayns picked off the cross-court pass, sped to the basket, then — bam! — crashed on his tailbone on the unforgiving court.
Strong start, end with a thud.
That might be the tale of Villanova’s season.
For the second straight season, the No. 15 Wildcats (21-7, 9-6) are experiencing a second-half swoon in the rugged Big East and it’s impossible to tell when the malaise will end.
The preseason pick to finish second in the conference, Villanova will be fortunate just to finish above .500 in the Big East with three games left. The Wildcats are 5-6 after a 16-1 start and face the grim — yet realistic — potential of dropping their last three games: No. 23 St. John’s on Saturday, then on the road at No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 4 Pittsburgh.
Each year under coach Jay Wright, the same theme is pounded into the playbook of every Wildcat. Win or lose, play your best basketball at the end of the season.
If the season ended Jan. 15, then, hey, sign up the Wildcats for the Final Four. But after a 69-64 loss to No. 17 Syracuse on Monday night, the only thing the Wildcats need to sign up for are some shooting drills. They started 1 for 17 from the field and shot 24 percent in the first half against the Orange. Toss out Corey Stokes’ 5 for 10 from the 3-point line, and Villanova was 0 for 16 in the loss.
The Wildcats have lived in the 30-percent shooting range for most of the last month and that’s not going to win games in the NIT, much less earn a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
“There’s always concern,” Wright said. “But I still think we can get better.”
He should hope so.
The Wildcats shot 36 percent in the first half of an overtime win over DePaul, which came two games after a 36-percent night (18 for 50) in a loss against Pittsburgh, which was one game after a 39-percent first half in a stunning loss at Rutgers.
Wright puts unconditional trust in his guards to create shots, run the offense and dictate the pace of the game. But his freewheeling backcourt mates were the biggest misfiring offenders against Syracuse. Corey Fisher and Wayns (who sat out most of the second half with back spasms) went 4 for 25 from the floor.
Time for concern? Not for Fisher.
“Not at all,” he said. “This league is so good, one day you could be in third, next day you could be in fifth. We’re not worried about rankings. We’re not worried about nothing.”
Let’s rewind a bit to last March.
The Wildcats raced to a 20-1 start, the best for a program that began play in 1920, and they won their first nine Big East games. They stumbled to a 2-5 finish, needed overtime to get past mid-major Robert Morris in the NCAA’s first round and former guard Scottie Reynolds proclaimed, “There ain’t nothing wrong with our team.”
The Wildcats were then knocked out of the tournament the next day by 10th-seeded Saint Mary’s.
So, this boast that all is well on the Main Line is hardly new.
“We’re not as good as I think people would like us to be, but we’re not that far off,” Wright said. “We’re not going to panic. We’re going to keep getting better, keep working. Our defense isn’t bad, it can get a little better. Maybe it can get us some easier shots. We’ll get there. I think this team will get there.”
Wright has asked his starters to play heavy minutes because the roster is dangerously thin. He rarely fields a full team — Stokes was back after a three-game absence because of turf toe, but center Maurice Sutton was suspended for missing curfew. Sutton was benched for a game last month for a throat-slashing gesture, Dominic Cheek missed a game with an injury and JayVaughn Pinkston is out for the season after he was charged with assault.
Each game seems to bring a new rotation.
“I don’t want to use it as an excuse, but that’s the rhythm thing,” Wright said. “You play one way when you’ve got the bigs in there. (On Monday vs. Syracuse), we played small. We haven’t played small in a while. You just don’t do that at this point in the season and look good. We’re trying to grind our way through it and figure out how we can do it.”
The Wildcats have dreadful losses at Big East lightweights Providence and Rutgers; and they lost to UConn, Georgetown, Pittsburgh and the Orange by a combined 13 points.
Wright confidently stated after the Syracuse loss that he still believes in his team. Even with the woeful shooting percentages, the Wildcats were still in position to win in the closing minutes. Plus, Fisher, Stokes and the senior class are only two years removed from a Final Four appearance. So, the talent is in place to believe another deep run is possible.
“We’re going to keep getting better until the last game of the season,” Wright said.
At this pace, that will come sooner than expected.