April 7, 2011
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, shifts into off-season mode as it focuses on sophomore guard Maalik Wayns.
On a recent rainy April afternoon the contingent is gathered in a familiar spot. Each of the four Villanova sophomores who entered the program together amid much fanfare in 2009 - Isaiah Armwood, Dominic Cheek, Mouphtaou Yarou, and Maalik Wayns - is seated casually on the sofas facing one another in the middle of the Wildcats' locker room in the Davis Center.
It is a scene that could have been witnessed on almost any day of the school year, given the bond that this group has nurtured since coming to Villanova months after the Wildcats had reached the NCAA Final Four for the first time since 1985. Yet there is a symbolism present now that didn't exist two months ago.
In a locker room soon to be devoid of tested seniors, the onus of leadership now sits squarely on the shoulders of these four juniors to be.
"I think we're going to handle this well," states Wayns. "That's what we came here for. We are tightly bonded like brothers."
In many ways, this first full week of April commences the run-up to 2011-12 for the Wildcats. Once the season ended on March 18 with a 61-57 second round NCAA Tournament loss to George Mason at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the Wildcats took some time for reflection. The group met with its coaching staff to review the highs - a seventh straight season of 20 or more victories and NCAA Tournament invitations - and the lows - a six game slide at season's end - in this very same locker room.
When that meeting ended a page turned.
Seniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena moved their focus to basketball beyond Villanova. Each has been working out with an eye towards landing a coveted job in the professional ranks. Fisher and Stokes are at the Portsmouth Invitational, an annual camp for aspiring seniors in Virginia, this week. Meanwhile, Russell Wooten is completing his first year of studies in a graduate program and plans to remain on campus to complete that degree next year, while also working as a graduate manager with the basketball program.
While the seniors are still a presence on campus and at the Davis Center as we approach Graduation Day, they are no longer on active duty. The weightlifting and individual workouts that take place during April are centered on those four returning Wildcats along with redshirt sophomore Maurice Sutton, freshman James Bell and walk-ons Dallas Ouano and Nick McCarthy.
A new day has indeed dawned.
It's a challenge Wayns and friends are eager to embrace.
"I think you can see all of us stepping up," says the graduate of Roman Catholic High School who will be VU's top returning scorer next season at 13.6 ppg. "Mouph is a quiet guy and you can already see him becoming more vocal. Isaiah and Dom are both ready to be leaders too."
While each will be expected to help point the way, the spotlight figures to shine most brightly on Wayns. As a Villanova novice in 2009-10, he absorbed all he could from All-American Scottie Reynolds while they shared a room together on the `Cats road trips. Fellow Philadelphian and long-time friend, Reggie Redding, was also a mentor to him. Last year, Wayns watched Fisher, Pena, and Stokes closely.
"I've taken something from all of them," he says. "I just want to be the ultimate leader for this program."
It won't hurt that the 6-2 guard comes naturally to the assignment in the same way that men like Randy Foye and Dwayne Anderson once did. He has studied for this role virtually since the day he committed to Villanova as a sophomore at Roman Catholic High School. In fact, the force of his personality was such that it helped steer pals Armwood and Cheek to become Wildcats.
"It's a lot like what happened to me in high school," he says. "My first two years I watched and learned. Then it was my turn to lead."
Of course, the events of February and March are still fresh in the minds of the men who endured as challenging a stretch as the Wildcats have faced in recent years. A molten mix of a brutal slate to finish the Big East season - four games against teams in the Associated Press Top 20 - sprinkled in with ill-timed injuries to Stokes, Fisher, and Yarou created an end to 2010-11 that was jarring in its finality.
"We had a lot of ups and downs," notes Wayns. "In a lot of those games we played hard but not well. We ran into some of the hottest teams in the country at a time when we weren't playing our best. We played hard but maybe not as hard as we could have. I just think we ran into a lot of tough breaks.
"It was disappointing to all of us. We were working hard and not seeing the results. The good part is that, through it all, we kept a great attitude. We didn't give up on each other and stuck together. That's something we can use as we go forward."
In the first days after the season ended, Wayns himself was a topic of conversation on internet sites and Twitter. There was speculation that the Philadelphia product would follow in the footsteps of close friend Kyle Lowry by entering his name into the National Basketball Association draft pool after two seasons as a Wildcat.
"Those were basically just rumors," he says. "I didn't give much thought to it at all. Of course,(the NBA) is a dream for every player and one day I hope to get that chance. (But) I knew I wanted to come back. We didn't end this year the right way. I wanted to come back and not leave with a sour taste in my mouth."
The first steps toward erasing that taste will take place here at the Davis Center, on the practice court and in the weight room.
"I think all of us who are coming back will have a little chip on our shoulder," he says. "It's not about proving anything to people. We just want to show the kind of team we are capable of being."
One of the lessons Wayns will impart once the next wave of Wildcats arrive in June for the first summer session is that the BIG EAST demands a level of toughness, both mental and physical, that is unlike anything they have otherwise confronted as burgeoning athletes.
"In this league, a lot of good teams struggle at different points during the year," he notes. "It happened to Connecticut - they were 9-9 in our league and ended up as Big East and national champions. They had a few struggles but by the end of the year they were the best team they could be.
"They say that without struggles, there's no progress. Struggling during the season happens. The important thing is that you stay together, like we did this year."
Wayns couldn't wait for the resumption of formal workouts this week. He was back on the Davis Center court within a few short days of season's end. Twice daily he is on the floor, shooting hundreds of jump shots in a quest to bolster his own skills.
"I'm just working at being a whole point guard and floor general," he says. "I've concentrated on playing at two different speeds and am working on my jumper."
He understands full well that, though his on-court direction will be what people see, there are many more mentoring moments in his future that will happen away from public view. It might be a short conversation with a young teammate or a longer heart to heart in a dormitory room. But he feels ready to step into the void, classmates by his side.
"Scottie, Reg, Fish, Tone, Stokes, have showed me what it takes," he says. "I feel prepared and I think all of us - Cheek, Isaiah, and Mouph - are ready."
And with that he exits a courtside conversation to hustle back down the hallway towards the locker room. There is a weightlifting session with strength coach Lon Record ahead. He is off to join his classmates for one of the first gritty steps on the road to the next chapter in the Villanova Basketball Story.
Outside, the windows reveal that the April showers have ceased. The sun is shining and suddenly November and a new season don't seem quite so far away.