As the guards go, so goes Villanova

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Some guys are leg men.

Jay Wright is a guard man.

Four years ago, Wright carved his coaching identity by riding an improbably successful three-guard lineup through the murky waters of the Big East and into the Elite Eight.

Ever since, Wright has collected talented guards like Bob Baffert collects quick ponies. As soon as one coltish class comes of age, there is another waiting in the wings. Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry beget Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher, who next year will beget Dominic Cheek and Maalik Wayns.

In the process, the Wildcats' offense has followed a fairly predictable rhythm. They are the girl-with-the-curl offense. When the guards are good, Villanova is very, very good. When the guards are bad, Nova is awful.

The tricky part? This particular collection is capable of being both in the span of one game. To wit, against Temple the guards combined for 1-of-12 in the first half, clanking every piece of the rim, save the part that drops the ball in the basket.

Short, long, wide left, wide right, airball, brick -- you name it, they shot it.

And then out of nowhere, early in the second half, Reynolds stops and pops a 3. And it goes in. So on the next trip, Fisher launches one from NBA distance and it slips through the net. The two traded buckets on five consecutive possessions, playing five minutes of eye-popping hoops that all but buried the Owls in a 62-45 victory.

"I think that's what makes Villanova so difficult to play," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said.

But as Big East play beckons with a New Year's Day visit to Marquette, the Wildcats are equally difficult to pinpoint. They are 12-1 and ranked No. 13 in the country, part of an eight-team Big East crew that has thrown a mutiny on the Top 25 rankings. Yet their best victory probably was the one they just registered, against a Temple team that is currently lost in a three-game skid.

The Cats have played one legitimate team, Texas, and lost that one by nine.

Villanova's start is eerily similar to last season, when the Cats opened 10-1 and rose to 17th in the country before the Big East welcomed the Wildcats with a 3-6 smacking start of reality.

Wright believes this team is different. His players are older and smarter. There is just one freshman, Maurice Sutton, on the entire roster, and he appears headed for a redshirt season.

"There was a lot of fool's gold with that team, where we were just outscoring people," Wright said. "Games like tonight, where you have to grind it out and win with defense, that's more like the Big East."

There are, in fact, signs of change. Dante Cunningham, a player who makes pro scouts salivate with his strength and size, made himself some money this summer by developing a jump shot that could be the most reliable J on the squad.

He is arguably the best offensive big man Wright has had. Jason Fraser's surgically disastrous knees never allowed him to become the player he promised to be in high school, and Will Sheridan, the post presence on that Elite Eight squad, was more a worker bee than offensive threat.

Cunningham is a more-than-capable bailout when the rest of the offense has gone to pot and certainly forces teams to at least play honest in the post. Against Temple, he single-handedly kept the Wildcats afloat, scoring 10 of their 22 points in the first half.

But it's not a coincidence that the game wasn't won until Reynolds and Fisher started to score.

For Villanova, the guards remain the question and the answer.

Reynolds, the one-time Big East Rookie of the Year, is capable of mind-numbing scoring streaks. Stokes is cut of the same cloth, more a jump-shooter than slasher -- someone who is a chronic threat parked on the arc.

Fisher remains the enigma. A point guard with an attitude (in the best sense of the word) a la Lowry, he is feisty and fearless, a New York kid who welcomes contact and has the strength to get to the rim. Wright constantly reminds his sophomore to be aggressive, to take his shot and not feel like his role is to defer to everyone else.

Against Temple, Wright didn't say a word. Fisher did it himself. He nailed back-to-back 3s in the 14-0 run that expanded to a 23-2 outburst and finished with 23 points, draining all four of his 3-point attempts. He was so hot, he launched one from the arc on one foot, falling to his left as the net never moved.

"That's how the game goes," Fisher said of the highs and lows of his scoring night. "My teammates just tell me to stay with it and that's what I did."'

Fisher doesn't need to be a scoring machine by himself. Neither do Reynolds or Stokes.

One of the three have to be very, very good.

And all three can never be awful.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.