NEW YORK -- Scottie Reynolds used to play a little game with Mike Nardi. Every day in practice Nardi, then a senior, would stand in front of Reynolds' face and scream, "Talk!"
The fiery leader demanded the reticent rookie speak up. So while Nardi was looking, Reynolds would clap and yell, encouraging his teammates to play harder, do better.
"As soon as he turned around, I'd stop talking," Reynolds said.
That is essentially Reynolds, a McDonald's All-American who has to be coerced into taking over a game. Obvious leadership does not come easily to him. He was content much of last season to bow to his upperclassmen and was almost embarrassed by his 40-point assault on Connecticut.
Consequently, the riddle that has been Villanova this season is wrapped up in the enigma that is Reynolds. This is his team, sophomore or not. The question has been whether he wanted it to be.
In the past few weeks, Reynolds decided.
And the answer was "Yes."
With the familiar sound of Nardi's singularly Italian North Jersey no-nonsense twang in his head, Reynolds figured out how to be a leader without feeling overbearing, how to be a point guard who doesn't necessarily have to be passive, how to be a scorer without feeling the responsibility to score 30 every night.
Not coincidentally, an up-and-down Villanova team has made a last-ditch push to the NCAA tournament. Winning five of their final seven regular-season games, the Wildcats have landed on the bubble with a stunningly easy 82-63 romp over fellow bubble-dweller Syracuse in the first round of the Big East tournament.
In what was essentially an elimination game, Syracuse blinked, and for the first time since 2002, the Orange won't be sweating Selection Sunday. Barring a stunning development out of the Indianapolis-sequestered basketball jury, Syracuse is going to the NIT.
Unlike last season, when he all but stormed the committee room, Jim Boeheim already has run the white flag up the pole. He didn't posture or argue for an at-large bid after the loss, instead agreeing that his team essentially needed to win at least two games to get consideration.
"Everything is the NCAA," said Boeheim, who praised his injury-decimated team for its season-long effort. "In my mind and in their mind, if they're not in the NCAA tournament, it's not a good year, period. That's just the way it is. I expect them to be disappointed. I'm disappointed. But I think you've got to step back and be realistic in terms of what's happened this year and what we've done."
Despite Jay Wright's wishes -- "I hope this means we're in" -- Villanova probably isn't avoiding the NIT, either. At 20-11, the Wildcats have only two good wins -- at home against a depleted Pitt team and at home against Connecticut -- and some bad losses (DePaul, Rutgers). They're a respectable 4-6 against the top 50 RPI teams but 2-5 against the top 25.
To secure a spot, Villanova needs one more signature victory. The Cats get the chance, fortuitously enough, in the quarterfinals when they face top-seeded Georgetown on Thursday (ESPN, noon ET). A sinking Villanova team limped to Washington, D.C., in February having lost five of six, but had the game tied in the waning seconds. A questionable foul called on Corey Stokes 75 feet from the hoop sent Jonathan Wallace to the line to win the game.
The replay of that foul will be revisited more than the Zapruder film in the next 24 hours.
"A lot of people talked to me about it," Stokes said. "After the game a lot of people were asking me if it was a foul. The referee made a call and he just made the call, that's what it was. You have to just play through it. We get another chance now. Hopefully we can come away with a victory."
That would go over well with Reynolds. He grew up in Herndon, Va., a 25-mile ride from Georgetown. A huge Hoyas fan, he wasn't recruited by Georgetown until Oklahoma released him from his letter of intent after Kelvin Sampson bolted for Indiana. He insists the early disinterest doesn't faze him now, but he also admits that beating the Hoyas is always a touch sweeter.
"Because they're the best team, the Big East champions," he said quickly.
To beat the Hoyas, Villanova will need Reynolds to come up with a line not unlike his beauty against Syracuse. Reynolds scored 22 points, which isn't unusual. He dished six assists and went 35 minutes without a turnover.
That's a first. In 30 prior games, Reynolds hadn't produced a turnover goose egg.
He said it's because he finally knows what's expected of him. A natural point guard, Wright moved him to 2-guard early in the season, hoping that rookies Corey Fisher and Malcolm Grant could handle the point. But as the freshmen struggled, Wright flipped and flopped Reynolds back and forth between the two spots. It all made for a frenetic sense of unrest for Reynolds.
Two weeks ago, Wright stopped tinkering. Recognizing his team was better when Reynolds had the ball in his hands, he put Reynolds back at the point.
With a caveat.
Wright explained to Reynolds that being a point guard didn't mean dishing the ball to his teammates and never looking to score any more than being a 2-guard meant he was expected to score every single point.
"He doesn't say anything and he does what you ask him, but you can tell it's affecting his game," Wright said. "He has nights when other guys get going and he sits back and does nothing because that's the way he thinks he's supposed to do it. He has other games, where he thinks he has to take it on his shoulders like last year. There's an in-between there, and I think that's what he's finding."
Reynolds' comfort has been coupled with the emergence of Stokes. A sweet-stroking freshman who Wright said is "the best shooter I've ever been involved with recruiting," Stokes has come into his own in the past month. More confident on defense, he has blossomed on offense. Previously scoring just 3.5 points per game, Stokes is going for 13.3 over the Cats' past six games. Teams once accustomed to concentrating all their defensive efforts on Reynolds no longer have that luxury.
Earning a second-half start because Wright wanted to go bigger, Stokes answered with 13 points to match a career-high 18. His shooting, coupled with the surprising lights-out shooting from his teammates -- the Cats shot 80 percent from the arc in the second half -- allowed the Wildcats to turn what looked to be a tight game into a rout.
The ever-pacing Boeheim all but threw up his hands as he watched Villanova reverse a 39-36 deficit into a 67-47 lead. The coach took a seat somewhere around the seven-minute mark, chin in his hand. So complete was the surrender that when the Orange got the ball with under 10 seconds left, rather than trying to score -- which virtually every trailing team does -- Boeheim had Jonny Flynn just dribble the ball in front of the bench until time expired.
But more than the improved play of Stokes, the surprise impact of previously little-used Dwayne Anderson (he had 14 points and seven boards against the Orange), Villanova has a puncher's chance at its fourth consecutive NCAA tourney berth because of Reynolds.
The sophomore no longer has multiple personality disorder. Ask him if he's a point guard or a 2-guard. Reynolds will say, "I'm a Villanova guard."
He still, however, hears voices.
"Every time I close my eyes, I just hear [Nardi's] voice," he said. "It's like, 'Will you get out of my head, man?' It's like he never left. But you know what? He always did what was best for the team, and look at him now. He had a very successful career. That's what believing what Coach is preaching will do for you. Hopefully I end up like him; I can be like Mike."
Then Reynolds laughed.
"Ha, be like Mike," he said. "Yeah, Nardi, not Jordan."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.