Thanks again to Villanova Viewpoint for providing the answers below:
1. Jay Wright and Mike Brey have been continuously compared since their days in the America East. While Brey had instant success in the Big East (three straight NCAA Tournament bids, one Sweet Sixteen), the Irish have been up and down since 2003. Villanova, however, has found a lot of success (especially in the NCAA Tournament) after Jay Wright's first three years wound up in the NIT. What has made Wright so successful over the last six years?
That's a complicated answer. Probably the most significant factor was that as time went on, Wright recruited players that fit into his system and philosophy, and as more Wright-recruited players assumed leading roles, the team improved.
However, he did not inherit a bad team from Steve Lappas, his predecessor, who had been here for nine years.. Lappas had gone to the NIT in his last two years (2000 and 2001), and he left some decent players to Wright, such as Gary Buchanan and Ricky Wright (ones that were good enough to get him into the NIT during his first two years, which were still dominated by Lappas recruits). It wasn't that he inherited bad players - not at all. It was that those players were recruited to fit into Lappas's motion offense, which Wright doesn't use.
Also, Wright did very well at developing his own recruits, once they got here. His second year (2002-03), there were really high expectations, because he had his core of Lappas-holdovers, plus Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser - his first recruiting class filled with blue-chippers. But the team never found its way, and it only reached the NIT.
Finally, there was the fact that unfortunately, Fraser's career was wrecked by injuries. He had been the top post prospect in the country, and had he become a star, we probably would have made the NCAA tournament in both 2003 (Wright's 2nd year) and 2004 (Wright's 3rd year) - given that we almost made it anyhow. Instead, Fraser's injuries forced him into a supporting role, and we never had that dominant inside presence that Wright had hoped for.
So how did we get better?
One major reason, often overlooked, was that from the day Wright arrived here in the spring of 2001, Wright courted the Villanova students, and did so in a very genuine and sincere way. He knew that having intense student support was vital to success. (To the best of my knowledge, Lappas, although a genuinely nice guy, did not make any similar overtures to students.)
Wright would serve as MC at pep rallies. He decreed that during Pavilion home games, that the players should dramatically take the floor by descending through the main corridor of the student section (you won't see this tomorrow because it's at the Wachovia Center, which is where we usually play you.) At the end of every contest, win or lose, the players walk over to the student section, and acknowledge the intense support that the students had provided with their enthusiasm.
As a result of all of these practices, Wright was - instantaneously - a hugely popular figure on campus. And during those first three years when the team was struggling, the students - who were grateful for the attention and acknowledgments, that they hadn't received under Lappas - were always 100% behind Jay. The rabid student support helped Jay's teams enormously, even when the team was mediocre. They provided an environment that helped in the recruiting process. And the enormous home-court advantage that the students' enthusiasm has generated, has been a major factor, in ensuring that we've won 35 games in a row at the Pavilion.
Ironically, the only time we've played ND at the Pavilion - January 17, 2007 - was the first game of that current 35-game winning streak.
Thanks to Wright, Ray, Foye, and Sumpter developed into stars, and with more Wright recruits who fit into his style added, the team got better. He not only recruits well, but the players show marked improvement from one year to the next. His first NCAA year was 2005, and as the team has continued success on the court, the easier it becomes to recruit.
Another aspect was (this is a Philadelphia-centric answer) that Wright launched a major charm offensive, with the very sophisticated, talent-rich, and influential Philadelphia basketball community. And not just coaches and players, but the media, and the large metro Philadelphia fan base. We have six Division I teams in the region (ourselves, St. Joseph's, Temple, La Salle, Penn, and Drexel), and Villanova had been viewed suspiciously for a while, for a host of reasons too complex to go into here.
As a result, Villanova is now once more viewed as one of the family, and the city and region is really behind the team now. Which in turn leads to more fan interest and support, which leads to more success, and it has snowballed ever since 2005.
(Note: We generally play you at the Wachovia Center, because you're Notre Dame! And ND sells tickets. Due to the recent success, filling the Wachovia Center generally hasn't been difficult. But under Lappas, and during Wright's early struggles, Notre Dame was generally played in Philadelphia, because you guys really help fill up the building! And so it was more money for the program.)
2. Scott Reynolds has been one of the better players in the conference since his freshman campaign. How has his game changed over the course of his career?
He's just remarkably talented. He's from suburban Maryland, and he was all set to head to Oklahoma, but Kelvin Sampson left, and we were able to snap him up. He's been a star player since the day he got here. Reynolds started 32 of the 33 games during his freshman year (2006-07), and he averaged 14.4 points/game as a freshman.
One factor is that he happened to arrive, the year after the 2006 season (the one where we ended up with a #1 seed and reached the Elite Eight), since we lost our two star guards, Ray and Foye, to graduation after that season. So he had a chance to play a lot, right from the get-go.
I have never seen a player better at driving into the lane (especially at his size), and who can just float up layups that nobody else can make, and they always seem to drop in.
Of course, he is already a legend in Villanova history, thanks to The Shot (the drive against Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight at the buzzer last season... he's on track to score his 2,000th point soon...
3. Besides Reynolds, who are the impact players on Villanova's offense?
We're fortunate, in that we have a lot of Wildcats who can score. Here's a capsule on each one:
The Two Coreys - Fisher and Stokes (both juniors)
Fisher is a combo guard, like Reynolds, that can play either the "one" or "two". He averages 13.1 pts, which is really good when we consider that he only averages 26.9 minutes last year. Last year, we had an eight-man rotation, with Fisher as the sixth man - a role he played so well he was named Big East Sixth Man of the Year. He can take someone off the dribble, and can also shoot from beyond the arc.
Stokes is a forward, known as the Bayonne Bomber, due to his New Jersey hometown. His role is to take three-point shots, which he does a lot of, and he's also a 90% foul shooter. He averages 8.9 pts/game, and was the seventh player in last year's rotation.
Antonio Pena, a redshirt junior, is the most improved player on the team. He was the eighth man in the rotation, who would come in to spell Dante Cunningham or if he were in foul trouble. While he's always been a good rebounder and defender, he's turned into a potent threat underneath, averaging 10.7 pts/game. He can finish with authority, and he's also become adept at passing the ball to the guards in transition for easy baskets.
Taylor King, our current sixth man, averages 9.7 pts/game. He spent his freshman year at Duke and transferred, sitting out last season. But the year of practicing with the team really has paid off, as he's the glue of the team. He's a great three-point shooter, and because he's a "four", a lot of opponents' fours aren't fast enough to cover him out on the perimeter. He also just has a nose for the ball, and dives on the floor for loose balls all the time.
Finally, Reggie Redding is a senior "two" guard, whose role, historically, was as a defender and rebounder. He was suspended for the first semester this year, but since he's come back, he's starting to score more than he used to. He's averaging 9.3 pts/game, the highest of his career.
4. How will 'Nova counter Luke Harangody in the post? Can Pena be called upon to stay in the game and, if not, will the Wildcats have to go to a zone or double-team on the Irish star?
Although we of course miss Dante Cunningham, now with Portland, we could really use him tonight against Harangody. Given that even with Dante, Harangody scored 18 points with 7 boards against us last year.
Pena averages 3.1 PFs a game, and if he gets into foul trouble early, we're going to have major problems with Harangody. Our only other post options are Mouphtaou Yarou (everyone calls him Mouph, rhymes with "roof"), a freshman and a true five, who has good size and is a decent defender. But he's not as good as Pena, and in particular, he is much less polished than Pena on offense.
Mouph also is recovering from hepatitis, which he contracted right before the Puerto Rico Shootout at Thanksgiving, and he missed 11 games due to it. Since he's come back, he's still not 100%, and he's a 15-minute player right now, not more than that.
We also have our 11th man, Maurice Sutton, a redshirt freshman who needs to get bigger. Sutton's role is to block shots and come in when Pena is in foul trouble, to absorb the five fouls that we can't afford Pena to get. But that's all we can ask out of him. If Sutton has to play a lot tonight, we're in serious trouble with Harangody.
Jay likes to play man-to-man defense, but he'll adjust if necessary, and order a zone. Also, I could totally see using King in particular to help double-team Harangody from the four spot, especially if your gunners aren't dropping in threes in the beginning. There's also the possibility of using both Pena and Mouph at the same time, given Harangody's skills.
5. What is the ceiling for this Villanova team? Are they a legitimate national title contender?
This is a tough question, because of course, I'd like to think that we are a legitimate national title contender. This team is arguably better than the one that went to the Final Four last year, despite the loss of three starters, including an NBA player in Cunningham. That having been said, nobody (certainly, myself included) expected that we'd start the year 18-1 (it's the best start since 1950-51) and 7-0 in Big East play (the best ever in school history.
The big factor, of course, was that we ended up getting Reynolds back for another year, since the NBA mock drafts indicated he wouldn't be drafted.
Also, the rest of the players (Pena especially) have really improved, and Wright added the newly eligible King as the sixth man. Finally, Wright brought in another class, about which recruiting analysts raved.
Last year, we used seven guys plus Pena (and Pena wasn't anywhere near as good as he is now). We now can go 10, 11 if we count Sutton. The freshmen Wright brought in (Mouph, point guard Maalik Wayns, wings Dominic Cheek and Isaiah Armwood) have all made significant contributions to the team. Wayns is a true point who's really, really fast. Armwood's a superb defender, and Cheek just scored 17 points in a blowout win over Rutgers last week.
The big weakness is in the low post. You guys are going to give us trouble with Harangody. If we happen to draw teams in the NCAA tournament with dominant post players, that's a big matchup problem for us. But if we draw smaller, quicker teams, we have a real chance at another deep NCAA run.