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Hilliard's a new breed of 'Nova guard

Jay Wright did not build his reputation at Villanova, has not maintained a consistent measure of excellence in his basketball program over the last decade, with players like Darrun Hilliard.

Jay Wright did not build his reputation at Villanova, has not maintained a consistent measure of excellence in his basketball program over the last decade, with players like Darrun Hilliard.

Hilliard is a Villanova guard, and for a long time, the term "Villanova guard" has carried a certain connotation, has conjured memories of certain players who played a certain way and fit a certain physical and stylistic profile.

When one thinks of a "Villanova guard" during Wright's tenure as head coach, the names are familiar: Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi, Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns - none of them taller than 6-foot-4, all of them tougher than goatskin, each a key contributor to a nine-year stretch that saw the Wildcats reach the NCAA tournament eight times, the regional semifinals four times, the regional finals twice, and the Final Four once.

Hilliard does not fit that profile. He's either 6-6 or 6-7, depending on the day you ask him. On Sunday, he scored a career-high 26 points in a 73-56 victory over Marquette, so he was 6-7. He needed just 11 shots from the field to score those 26 points, making five of his eight three-point attempts, adding four assists, playing with such efficiency, such controlled fluidity, that it was surprising to hear him say that those smaller guards who came before him - players who had thrived when they and the game were at their most frenetic - had inspired him.

"They kind of were a stepping-stone for why I came here," said Hilliard, a junior from Bethlehem who entered Sunday averaging 13.6 points per game. "I can't really [model] my game after them. But they all had heart, so I try to incorporate that into my game."

The irony of that goal is that Wright wants to see Hilliard display more intensity, to take on more of the edgy attitude that those previous Villanova teams had. The problem is that he's young - he doesn't turn 21 until April 13 - and the game just comes so easily to him.

Hilliard is ambidextrous. He writes and throws a football with his right hand but shoots his jump shots with his left, and twice Sunday he finished off layups by switching the basketball from his left hand to his right in midair. But then late in the second half, with the game's outcome all but decided, Marquette's Todd Mayo stole the ball from Hilliard, who reacted as if he'd happened to notice that his shoelace was untied.

"He didn't do anything," Wright said out of admiration as much as frustration. "He was just out there. He had a shot he didn't take. Mayo just strips him. That's the final step in his development - just to be an assassin, regardless of the score, regardless of what his teammates are doing."

Wright acknowledged that if he wanted to, he could funnel the offense through Hilliard on every possession, and there may come a time in March when he'll have to do that. But this year's team is different from any Wright has coached at 'Nova. It's deeper.

Whereas in previous years Wright's regular rotation comprised seven players, the Wildcats use nine players this season. James Bell, Villanova's leading scorer, got into early foul trouble and did not score a point Sunday, and still the Wildcats had a relatively easy time running their record to 26-3 and taking a one-game lead in the Big East.

"If you're doing it with nine guys and you have to worry about guys' egos, it's hard," Wright said. "But with this group, it's strictly basketball decisions. Sometimes, [we sub] because somebody did something they weren't supposed to do, and we want to take them out and tell them. Sometimes it's because guys are tired. Sometimes it's because we see matchups. As a coach, it's so easy with this group."

It's not always that easy, though. A bit worried that his players might have grown tired of hearing his voice, Wright intended to have Hilliard deliver the customary postgame speech Sunday. Hilliard's address, by his own recollection, clocked in at 16 words and 10 seconds: "Great game," he said. "Keep getting better. Off tomorrow and the next day. Just keep getting better, man."

That's fine. A Villanova guard tends to let his play speak for him.