A COUPLE OF years ago, it was Phil Martelli who had lost his fastball, who was a bad coach whose great streak of luck had ended, a guy who would be gone soon, you just wait.
Now Phil is coaching arguably the best and deepest college basketball team in town, a team with at least one more season of shelf life past this one, a team that was the preseason favorite of the Atlantic 10. And if not Saint Joe's, Temple is poised to win that league, too, and for similar reasons. Both are deep teams with a lot of nice, unselfish players, teams easy to root for, easy to like.
And so the web-fingered vultures who inhabit that dark world of anonymous blogging and unaccountability now swirl over Jay Wright and a Villanova program that has seen the same kind of hard times that percolated Martelli just a few years ago, mixing a cocktail of coaching criticisms with ugly, baseless innuendo.
"I'm in the public eye," Wright was saying Tuesday. "So I understand that this comes with the territory."
Wright's Wildcats are is 4-3 entering Wednesday night's game against 5-0 Temple at the Pavilion (9 o'clock, ESPN2). They have lost to La Salle in overtime and been skunked in consecutive games against Alabama and, egads, Columbia - which re-ignited the innuendo and rumors, one of which said he was about to quit. "I'm not," he said.
But Villanova, picked 12th out of 15 teams in the preseason Big East poll, also has recorded victories against Vanderbilt and Purdue. The 'Cats have young guards and play a little unorthodox - 6-10 senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou now faces the basket and takes jump shots - but there is a gestating chemistry that makes them interesting to watch even during the ugliest of their losses.
"I actually like where we are," Wright said. "It might not show in wins and losses yet. I think what shows is our inconsistency. But I like this group."
That has not always been the case during Villanova's cascade from a Final Four berth in 2009 to its current predicament. The Wildcats have experienced a lion's share of transfers and saw Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek leave early. The result is a team spanning four classes, a team of random parts and thinner in talent and depth from teams of even its more recent, disappointing seasons.
It is a program, like Martelli's was, attempting to pick itself up again.
"Absolutely right," Wright said. "But I like the way our guys are handling it. It's not easy and it's not pretty, but that's what I like about where this group is right now. You have to appreciate the process of proving yourself again. And that's where we are."
Which is why Temple's visit to the Pavilion is not the slam dunk that rosters and records suggest it would be. The Owls are off to a hot start under Fran Dunphy, playing with an edge born of last season's great start and feeble finish. They have experienced players and established roles and the same sort of depth that St. Joe's enjoys.
The same sort Villanova once enjoyed, too.
"We're all fighting for that kid that gives you all those qualities," Dunphy said. "Some years it's not going to come together the way you would like it to. You need a requisite amount of luck, too. You'd like to say you're this great architect and everything is coming together the way you would like it to. Timing is critical and luck is critical, and then once it all comes together you have to manage it the best way possible."
Said Wright: "We never had a plan to play four guards. Everybody does it now. But it was never our plan. When we brought in Mike Nardi, we already had Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Derrick Snowden. Everybody told Nardi he was crazy to go there. But Nardi just happened to be a St. Pat's kid who loved Villanova. Then, we didn't even recruit Kyle Lowry. His choices were down to Syracuse, Xavier, Connecticut. They all got somebody else in his spot. And so when he came, we already had Nardi, Foye, Allen.
"Then the greatest gift of all was Scottie Reynolds. We didn't even recruit him. Honest to God, our recruitment of Scottie Reynolds was one visit to his home and one visit to Villanova. That was it.
"So we were so lucky back then. That's why there's no complaints by us now. None."
Well, no complaints about team makeup or losses. But the ugly stuff that comes with a program in transition? Well, they all could do without that. As we all could.
"This is definitely more of a nurturing, teaching type of year," Wright said. "I'm actually really enjoying this team. I think they can be good and I like what they can be next year, too.
"I like where our program is. I do."