NEWARK, N.J. -- If this year's Villanova team looks familiar to you, it should. The Wildcats, under Jay Wright, appear to be awfully similar, and every bit as dangerous, as the 2008-09 Wildcats who went to the Final Four. They're now 14-1, after an 83-67 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday night.
For Wright, whose star was never brighter than following that NCAA run, it's been a long five years since. No Villanova team since Scottie Reynolds' layup sent them to the Final Four has advanced beyond the second round.
Two years ago, Villanova finished 13-19, and some wondered whether Wright would be the coach for much longer -- unthinkable just a few years earlier, and silly in light of what the Wildcats are doing now.
"Phew, yes, it's easy to block that out of your mind," Wright said when I asked him how far away 13-19 feels to him now, coaching another national title contender. "It's easy. But I think we paid some dues that year, that put us in a position. James Bell was a part of that, and I think James Bell's been a great leader, because he was a part of that."
Wright really had put it behind him -- he thought a bit about who was on that team, trying to remember.
"I think [Bell's] the only one." He thought. "JayVaughn [Pinkston, Villanova's current leading scorer]. Um- and Darrun, Darrun Hilliard. They're our leaders. And they lived through that."
The fun part of a good Jay Wright team, then and now, comes from watching a parade of guards and wings shoot threes, penetrate and kick, pressure the ball on the defensive end and run teams into the ground. No one could have seen the Wildcats put 50 up in a half against an overmatched Providence team this past weekend without remembering the Coreys (Fisher and Stokes) of 2008-09, or even the Elite Eight team from 2005-06 with Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry, knocked out by eventual champion Florida.
To get how Wright recovered from 13-19 to reach 14-1, 3-0 in the Big East following Wednesday's win, it is necessary to take a look at last season's Villanova squad, which played a very different kind of basketball than Jay Wright is used to, but did so well enough to reach the NCAA tournament.
This year's Villanova team is eighth in the country in three-point attempts per game. The Final Four team ranked 59th. The 2005-06 prototype ranked ninth in the country. Last year's Wildcats? 155th.
This was no small thing. His Villanova team was picked 12th in the Big East last year. They managed to win 20 games and reach the tournament, and did it with Wright adjusting to his personnel.
"I think getting to the tournament last year was very significant," Wright said. "I think it gave us great confidence. I think it gave them a sense of accomplishment. If we didn't get to the tournament, our staff would have been spending a lot of energy to convince these guys they were really good. … And I think everybody got better, because we did play a little bit different style, and everybody's more comfortable with how we're playing now. I'm a lot more comfortable now. We've gotten back to doing what we do."
What they're doing, briefly: Villanova has three wings who can play for one another at either spot on the court -- Josh Hart, Darrun Hilliard, James Bell -- along with three guards -- Ryan Arcidiacono, Tony Chennault and Dylan Ennis -- who can run the team, though Arcidiacono is the primary facilitator on the floor.
They have JayVaughn Pinkston, an undersized, but efficient interior threat who leads the team in scoring so far this season. Kris Jenkins, a talented freshman, is in the rotation as a kind of Pinkston-in-waiting.
And then there's X-factor Daniel Ochefu, whose shot blocking has been a revelation this season. He's arguably this year's Dante Cunningham, with an important difference. Cunningham was a senior when he anchored the middle of the 2008-09 team's defense, providing rim protection for all those gambles by the scrambling Wildcat guards. Ochefu is just a sophomore, and if he's arrived ahead of schedule, he makes Villanova significantly better than they've even been early on, beating the likes of Kansas.
"I think it's a great comparison to Dante Cunningham," Wright said when I asked about the pair. "I think he's on pace with Dante in terms of his development. And what you mentioned about his value defensively, that's what Dante always was for us. And as he was doing that throughout his career, he was always developing his offensive game, where by the time he got to be a senior, he was a 15-foot jump shooter, post player, passer. Daniel is different than Dante in that he's got size -- more size and length. Same basketball IQ ... Dante developed into a complete player, and that's the path I think Daniel's on."
Just like the very best Wright teams, this is a Villanova squad best seen collectively. A skeptical NBA scout I sat next to Wednesday nignt came away very impressed. "They're going to win that league," he said when the game was over. "And they're going to be a very dangerous tournament team."
Wright had been reminiscing about the old Big East with some other reporters after the game, so I asked him whether winning the Big East this year would feel like winning it in the past, or more like winning a new league.
"I don't know," Wright said, pondering. He broke out into a big grin at the prospect of feeling it, though. "I haven't thought that far ahead. It's a good question! I'll tell you that when we're done, if we do."