Anyone who thinks the Wildcats can't win without senior forward Curtis Sumpter, the team's top interior player, should think again. Just ask Florida or North Carolina. Last March, 11 minutes into Villanova's second-round game against the Gators in the NCAA tournament, Sumpter tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and coach Jay Wright had no choice but to go with an unorthodox lineup: He played four guards. The Wildcats had 6'9" junior Jason Fraser under the basket, but after that, their tallest player was 6'4" junior guard Randy Foye. The team gutted out a 76--65 victory.
Then came the Tar Heels. "It was like a high school football game where the other team has linemen who are 350 pounds and you've got 220-pounders," says Wright. The result? The Wildcats had a 33--29 lead at halftime but lost to the eventual national champions by a point.
So when Sumpter reinjured his left knee last month, most likely ending his season, Villanova was in familiar territory. Without him, the Wildcats will again look for leadership from the gritty Foye--"My alltime favorite player," says Wright. Foye developed his toughness growing up in a rough section of Newark, where he was raised by his grandmother. "I had no other role models in my life," he says, "but I started at the bottom and kept moving up."
He was the team's second-leading scorer last season, with 15.5 points a game, and pulled down 5.0 boards a game. Rejoining him on the Wildcats' crowded perimeter will be top scorer Allan Ray (16.2 points per game), point guard Mike Nardi (8.2) and Kyle Lowry (7.5). Wright admits he's taking a gamble by starting four guards. "I'm concerned it will wear them down over the year," he says, "and if you're getting beat up on the boards, it's not fun."
At the same time, Wright can spread out his offense and up the tempo. "We have four guys who can shoot threes, score off the dribble, screen for each other and create mismatches," he says. "When you play with bigger guys, you don't get mismatches."
If Villanova can capitalize on its strengths, expect another deep run in the NCAA tournament. Foye, not surprisingly, is ready. "We still have a fire lit under us," he says. "That's the good thing about this team. We're still hungry." --J.M.
NEW YORK CITY AND LONG ISLAND
Jay Wright, formerly coach at Hofstra, maintained his old recruiting ties in the area and brought back Jason Fraser, Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter; he already has a commitment from Antonio Pe√±a.
Coach: Jay Wright 2004--05 record: 24--8 (11--5, T3 in Big East)
2005 tournament: Lost in Sweet 16 to North Carolina
6'8"Jr.5.1 ppg5.8 rpg
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
Losing Sumpter is devastating. To me, he was the toughest guy to guard in the Big East.... I'm not sure there is a better bunch of guards in the country. Ray is the best shooter, but Foye is the most well-rounded--he doesn't have a weakness, and he can play a lot of positions.... Fraser may be the best outlet passer I've ever seen, but he can't score. All his points will come on the blocks or at the free throw line.
NO SMALL TASK The 6'4" Foye, Villanova's emotional leader and Coach Wright's alltime favorite player, will have to play big this year.