Corey Fisher comes full circle

NEW YORK -- The New York guys, current coaches and former coaches, sat and watched as Jay Wright ran his Villanova players through a practice.

The guys on the court were all very familiar. Six of the Wildcats call either New York or North Jersey home.

But there was this one guy … who was that guy? He looked like the Corey Fisher they remembered from St. Patrick's and the Bronx, but he sure didn't act like him.

"After practice was over, they came over and the first thing they said to me was how amazed they were with Fish," Wright said. "These are guys who have known him his whole life and they couldn't believe how he had taken over practice and really ran the team. That was a real thrill for me."

No doubt.

As Wright prepares a Villanova team once again saddled with lofty expectations -- picked second in the Big East preseason coaches' poll and sixth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' national poll -- Fisher is perhaps the most important part of Villanova's puzzle.

The Wildcats are loaded with talent -- seniors Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena, sophomores Dominic Cheek and Mouphtaou Yarou plus freshman JayVaughn Pinkston fill out a roster that is stacked top to bottom-- but they are not brimming with leadership.

That walked out the door with Scottie Reynolds and his diploma. The steady and low-key guard had been Villanova's rudder for four years, the guy who scored the big buckets and most of the other buckets as well, finishing his career as the school's No. 2 all-time leading scorer.

The heir apparent -- taking a baton that has passed from Randy Foye to Mike Nardi to Reynolds -- is Fisher.

"This is why he came to Villanova," Wright said. "He could have gone somewhere else and been a great player without the responsibility. He knew what would be expected of him when he came here."

Not that he was always ready for it and not that Wright expected him to be.

If the end of Reynolds' career showed Fisher what he should aim for, the beginning showed Wright the blueprint his guard would likely follow.

Reynolds wasn't always a leader. When Reynolds was a freshman, Wright chewed him out, cajoled and begged him to demand the ball and assert himself but Reynolds, deferential to his upperclassmen, struggled. He scored buckets of points -- a memorable 40 against Connecticut -- and earned Big East Rookie of the Year honors for it, but Wright wanted and demanded more.

It finally clicked for Reynolds in his junior season, when his talent and his maturity collided in a stunning season that ended up with Villanova in the Final Four and a year later, Reynolds earning All-America honors.

Fisher, flashier in style and fierier in temperament than Reynolds, came to Villanova equally ill-prepared to lead a team. But like his predecessor, he's grown into the role.

When he came in here as a freshman, Corey Fisher was the least prepared to be a leader. Right now he's the most prepared and that's because he played under Scottie Reynolds and he looked up to guys like Mike Nardi. ... He's ready for this.

--Villanova head coach Jay Wright

"When he came in here as a freshman, Corey Fisher was the least prepared to be a leader," Wright said. "Right now he's the most prepared and that's because he played under Scottie Reynolds and he looked up to guys like Mike Nardi. He's such a student of the game. He watches the NBA; he sees what leaders do. He's ready for this."

Actually more than ready.

Fisher has spent the past three years watching, waiting and learning. He went to Villanova, in part, because of his admiration for Nardi and though the two never crossed paths on the Wildcats' court, the older St. Pat's guard served as a mentor to his high school and collegiate successor.

At Villanova, Fisher found an equally good tutor in Reynolds, a guy just a year older who went through the same growing pains and survived the same experiences to emerge on the other side.

Reynolds was more big brother than mentor and even though he's across the ocean playing in Italy, he's still influencing Fisher. The two talk regularly thanks to the technological marvel that is Skype.

Fisher's eyes light up and his smile spreads wide when he's asked what it feels like to know this is finally his team. He says all the right things -- that he won't be able to do it alone, that it's not about him and he means it. His excitement doesn't stem from selfishness or ego, but rather opportunity.

"I remember my senior year at St. Pat's," Fisher said speaking of his high school days. "I had played with great players like Derrick Caracter and then they left and it was just me. It was on me. I couldn't wait to lead that team and it's the same now."

Of course Villanova didn't recruit Fisher because they thought he could be the next Patton. They recruited him because he can play. Fisher is a typical New York guard, equal parts talented and ferociously fearless. He is self-assured and tough, a gritty player who came to the college game caring little about who stood in the lane as he was trying to get through it.

But just as he's grown as a leader, Fisher has matured as a player as well. He's gone from a guy who occasionally took bad shots to a much more selective and more accurate shooter. His field goal percentage has increased from 35 percent as a freshman to 45 percent last season, and he's steadily raised his 3-point accuracy from 33 percent to nearly 40.

Equally impressive -- and equally critical for Villanova -- Fisher has become a better floor general. The once mile-a-minute guard has improved his assist-to-turnover ratio steadily every season, finding that critical balance that allows him to be quick but careful.

"I know if something goes bad, people will look at me and if things go good, people might look at me but this isn't all about me," Fisher said. "Following Scottie isn't easy but it's nothing to be scared about. It's a challenge and I love challenges."

Now that, the New York guys can attest, is the Corey Fisher they know.

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