SO, WHEN EXACTLY did Jay Wright forget how to coach? After Villanova's Sweet 16 appearance in 2005, or the trip to the Final Eight the following March?

Just curious.

When a Wildcats basketball team that had been ranked suddenly lost five straight at midseason, all by double figures, more than a few folks were only too willing to suggest that Wright was somehow screwing up a good thing.

All you had to do was read the nearest e-mail.

"You try to ignore it, but you hear it," Wright said yesterday, 24 hours after his 12th-seeded 'Cats made it back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament by beating Siena in South Florida. "And we know the kids hear it. We spend a lot of time talking with them about what they hear. They're on the Internet, too. That's just what it is now.

"You can't complain about it, because if that many people didn't care, we wouldn't get 20,000 [fans] at the Wachovia Center. You have to convince the kids that we're the ones in this, and this is how we have to look at it: 'This is part of our struggle. Who are we, not to have to go through this?' "

Funny, but some were saying the same thing about Temple's Fran Dunphy when his team started 6-8. How did that work out?

The Wildcats, it should be pointed out, made the 65-team field four times from 1991-92 to 2003-04, which includes zero times in Wright's first three seasons. The last time they made it as many as 4 consecutive years was 1980 through 1986, a 7-year run that of course included that everlasting moment in Lexington. So munch on that, before passing sentence.

When things looked the worst, Wright kept telling anybody who would listen, over and over, that it would have a happy ending. He just wasn't sure if that meant next season.

Now, they're one of five programs that have made it this far three times in the last 4 years. The others are North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA and West Virginia. As company goes, that's not too shabby, especially for a team supposedly in a transition mode, whose better days should still be out there on the horizon.

You might have noticed that Big East regular-season champion and Big East tourney champ Pitt has already turned in its uniforms. The 'Cats (22-12), who barely avoided the NIT, now get Kansas (33-3) Friday night in Detroit, in the Midwest Region semifinals.

Shades of 2004-05, Randy Foye's and Allan Ray's junior season, when the 'Cats started 7-1 against a suspect schedule, then started 5-5 in the conference.

Wright, who had opportunities to leave the Main Line if he chose to pursue them, will tell you that his three juniors deserve much of the credit. For leading. Or he'll tell you how his staff did a lot of the dirty work. Like he was little more than a bystander.

"I said to the assistants [after the losing streak], 'I've got to coach basketball.' We've got a lot we've got to learn, basketball-wise," Wright recalled. "You guys keep those guys together. Freshmen aren't just down about losing. They're questioning [everything]. The juniors have already invested in it. They did that, so I could deal with major issues.

"I couldn't be the bad cop, with this group. I had to be more the teacher, the educator. The assistants had to be the big brothers. They didn't come here to go through something like that.

"I really didn't know when we were going to be good. This could have been an ugly season. I could have been all right with that. I knew these guys had it in them. It's such a fine line. If things don't break your way, you could be dealing with that in the offseason, where you have major disappointment and have to build on that. We lucked out there. We played great, but things broke our way.

"I'm surprised it's come together at the end, this well, having to overcome some of the things we did."

Through it all, Jay pretty much remained Jay, which is often the best thing any coach can do. He never stopped being upbeat. So neither did they.

"That's how he is," said Dwayne Anderson, one of the juniors. "That's why I admire him. When you're doing well, he puts it all on us. When it's not, he looks at himself first.

"He's been doing this a long time. He's been through every situation. We were just in a tough situation."

In other words, he has their back. Despite the success, this is still a flawed team. It's had injuries, small and large, freshmen who sometimes play like freshmen, and veterans who have suffered through slumps. Wright has changed the rotation, stuck with guys through their mistakes, and basically just tried to be a steadying influence.

"He's played the biggest part, in keeping us whole," said another junior, Dante Cunningham. "He's always in our ear, about everything that happens, everything we do. [With] all different quotes and thoughts, that are relevant to us. He senses when to push us hard, and kind of when to back off, but not too much. We just trust him. He said he's always going to be 100 percent with us.

"He might get crazy, do a lot of yelling, but he only wants what's best for us. It was up to us to respond."

So here they are, looking to do even more.

There are a bunch of teams that would trade places with them. How many would have said that 2 weeks ago?

Whatever happens Friday or beyond, the expectations for next season have gone up. Which means only one thing: Wright had better not underachieve, perceived or otherwise.

"It's comical to be here, now, pushing them to win a Sweet 16 game," Wright said, smiling. "But it's awesome. It's why we coach.

"When you don't have confidence, you can be so bad. When you do, it's incredible what you can do. We're starting to get confidence."

It had to start somewhere. Maybe even at the top.

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