Will injuries derail Nova yet again?
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Villanova is on a four-year plan. This is year three. And it might not include an NCAA Tournament berth.
So, deal with it.
The heralded junior class, not the coaches, thought they would have been in the NCAAs twice already. They haven't been. If forward Jason Fraser, the most highly touted of the group, can't go at all (let alone at three-quarter's strength this season after yet another knee surgery; the coaches hope he's practicing Monday), then getting to the tournament for the first time since 1999 will have to wait another year.
That's the reality facing the Wildcats.
Yet the seat on which head coach Jay Wright sits isn't hot. Not when he has a rollover contract and constantly has had to deal with injuries that befall his brightest star -- and most recently, his top recruit (Kyle Lowry) for this season.
Sure, no one is celebrating the Wildcats' off-court phone card transgressions that ended up embroiling the university and hit the program with 12 suspensions over the past two seasons, or an investigation that resulted in a two-year probation after recruiting and benefit violations from 2001-03. The investigation drained Wright, so much that there were multiple times that he spent more time in a day dealing with the investigators than he did preparing for practice.
Still, he's safe and everyone on campus knows the events (read: injuries) that have hurt this program the most are out of his control.
"Publicly it's very hot, but at Villanova, with our administration, it's not hot at all," Wright said. "Villanova is a different place. Villanova appreciates the students and feels good about how connected we are to the school and the alumni. We're graduating players. I know our fans expect us to be an NCAA Tournament team. I have a great, long-term contract. When I came back to Villanova (he was an assistant under Rollie Massimino), I said I wanted to be here long-term and Villanova wanted me to be here long-term."
The hype that the junior class -- Fraser, Curtis Sumpter, Randy Foye and Allan Ray -- received was in large part because they were all from the New York-New Jersey area. The staff was proud of the class, but it was actually the players (more than the coaches) who pumped up the potential results.
Finishing as an NIT team with final records of 15-16 and 18-17 the last two seasons wasn't what the players envisioned.
"I knew that the toughest thing from day one was the expectations -- not from the fans, but from the kids coming in," Wright said. "We had four of them that were going to play a lot. I knew it was going to be tough in the Big East and going to be tough to play a lot of freshmen. But I'm very pleased with how they've handled everything. I'm not pleased with the record, though."
Neither are the players.
Since they have played the brunt of the minutes, they do take responsibility.
"I thought we'd come in with our great recruiting class and go to the tournament, but it's not that easy," Ray said. "It's tough to have a lot of expectations and not live up to them. It does make you work harder and gives you more motivation. The things people do say is that we weren't doing what we were supposed to do, be an NCAA team from our freshman year on."
Ray said he tells anyone who would ask that the career of the highly publicized class wasn't over.
"We still have two more years," Ray said, but he added, "not getting to the tournament would be a big disappointment."
"I expected what every college freshman wants and that is to win the national championship," Fraser said. "There's nothing you can tell a high school student to prepare him for this."
Unfortunately, the burden could rest again on Fraser.
The guards are as solid as any in the Big East with Foye (13.5 ppg), Ray (17.3 ppg) and point guard Mike Nardi (130 assists to 106 turnovers) able to hang with any other threesome. The problem is Lowry was supposed to be the fourth in this rotation, leaving this group without much of a breather. Few players in the Big East improved as much as Sumpter, who made the gold medal World Championship Qualifying team last July. He's the starting small forward and should be a lock to repeat his 14.3 points a game and 7.1 boards.
But no one can replace Fraser. He saved his best work for the Big East tournament, scoring 17 points, including 12 in the second half to beat Providence in the quarterfinals. He scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a loss to eventual champ Connecticut.
Everything seemed to be going fine for Fraser this summer. He had a nasty run of injuries, starting with a bilateral knee surgery in April of 2003 and then fracturing his foot twice last year. But that all cleared up after the Big East tourney and NIT.
"This was my first normal summer," Fraser said. "I worked out all summer and played in a tournament in Philadelphia, went to the ABCD camp as a counselor, went to the Pete Newell Big Man Camp and won the gold medal at the Empire State Games."
But the coaching staff had to shut him down for a spell after his knee swelled up in August. The school sent Fraser to a knee specialist in Los Angeles to be evaluated. Surgery wasn't supposed to occur but he had his knee scoped on Oct. 22. Wright won't rule out redshirting Fraser if he can't go, but the Wildcats are hoping he'll be ready for the opener against Maryland-Baltimore County on Nov. 23.
"[Jason's] never had a full season of practice and I've never had a player miss this much practice, never," Wright said. "I don't have expectations for this group because I know how fragile we are. We've got [senior] Marcus Austin coming off a broken foot. Jason is up in the air. Chris Charles has a chance to be a real good player. We've had five years here together and we've been building this for three years.
"We've got a chance to be really good, but I'm not going to be discouraged, but rather disappointed, if it [the NCAAs] didn't happen. We've had a lot of things that don't look good on the outside, but inside everyone here likes the way things are going. With all our injuries and everyone coming back next year, and what's coming in, everyone at Villanova likes the momentum."
For now, everyone on the Main Line has to be patient, possibly for another year.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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