Practice Makes Perfect

John Pickhaver

Sixers fans are still haunted by Allen Iverson’s bizarre response to a reporter asking him about practice in a 2002 postseason press conference.

In response to the reporter’s question, Iverson said: “It’s funny to me, too. Hey, it’s strange to me, too, but we’re talking about practice man. We’re not even talking about the game when it actually matters. We’re talking about practice.” Iverson went on to say: “I am the MVP, but it has nothing to do with practice.”

Sorry Mr. Iverson, but practice is not a joke when it comes to Villanova basketball. Try to telling that to head coach, Jay Wright, or senior captain, Scottie Reynolds.

Now imagine if Reynolds, former Big East rookie of the year, said: “I was the best rookie in the Big East, arguably the most competitive conference, but it has nothing to do with practice.” It just is not plausible, especially here on the Main Line with a program like Villanova’s, which rounds out the top five in the AP poll, ranking higher than any other Big East team. At Villanova, practice is The Answer. (Iverson’s nickname is the answer)

Practice is so important to this championship-driven program that the coaching staff even holds tryouts for, wait for it, practice players.

“Every single day a practice player needs to come to practice with great attitude.” says Keith Urgo, Manager of Basketball Operations, and organizer of this year’s tryouts. “He must bring energy and play as hard as possible every single play.”

Currently, Villanova has two senior practice players turned walk-ons, Jason Colenda and Russell Wooten.

Like other notable Villanova walk-ons, such as Tom Grace, Class of ’04, and Ross Condon, Class of ’07, Colenda hails from the metropolitan D.C. area. Colenda, a fan favorite among ‘Nova Nation, was an All-State guard at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va, and helped lead his team to Virginia state titles from 2004 to 2006.

“Colenda came in as a preferred walk-on,” Urgo said, “He had offers from Navy and other schools, but he chose Villanova.”

Colenda was strictly a practice player his freshman year but earned a spot on the team by his sophomore season.

“Once you are in, you are a part of a family” Urgo says. “Everybody’s role is different, from Scottie to Russell, but as Coach Wright preaches, everyone’s status is the same. Starters are no more important to this program than practice players.”

Russell Wooten, a senior forward, joined the “family” after spending two years of his career as a practice player. Perhaps you know Wooten for his flawless of Michael Jackson dance moves at this year’s Hoops Mania. However, among the team and coaching staff, Wooten is not just known for his stellar dance moves. He is known for his “phenomenal” commitment, according to Urgo.

“We would call guys here and there for an extra body, but Russell was there every day,” Urgo says.

According to his player profile on Villanova’s athletic Web site, Wooten, a California native and earner of three varsity letters, chose Villanova for its academics, basketball and “to test my character being away from home.” After traveling nearly 2,500 miles to attend Villanova he joined the active roster in his junior year and finished the season with a Final Four ring on his finger. It seems like Wooten’s character has been tested to the maximum for all the right reasons.

A practice player is more than just a fan. While he still has the same passion and pride for Villanova basketball as a fan would, he also needs to dedicate his time to the team each day on and off the court. It is not a “glorified position,” according to Urgo. Practice players cannot participate in club or intramural sports. Their responsibility is to the team first. They make stars, like Reynolds and Corey Fisher, into better, stronger basketball players.

“They need to practice harder than anyone on the floor,” says Urgo. “What we look for in a practice player or walk-on is someone who is completely, 100 percent committed to Villanova basketball. Someone that will represent the program every time they step on the floor by playing hard as they possibly can. Someone who is a great student in the classroom and a great man off the court within the community.”

The coaching staff held practice player tryouts at the end of October, looking to find players who can match the commitment and dedication of Colenda and Wooten after they graduate this spring.

“We are more focused on finding guys that are legitimate and next year could be walk-ons,” Urgo says, “They can learn the system and understand Coach Wright’s philosophy and be prepared for next year.”

This year, nine students representing various classes, tried out to make the practice squad, each hoping to follow in the footsteps of both Colenda and Wooten.

Ryan Abbadi, a freshman, was one of those who tried out. Abbadi always had interest in playing college basketball.

“I had two looks from Division 3 schools but I wanted to go to a bigger school,” Abbadi says, “I decided to attend Villanova based on academic interest foremost as well as my interest in the Villanova basketball program.”

The tryouts opened with numerous drills, including an Olympic shooting drill. The evening concluded with a 5 on 5 scrimmage.

“By the end I was exhausted… you really have to be in shape,” says Abbadi.

Abbadi admits he was nervous before the tryouts but by day two he felt relaxed and comfortable.

“I wanted to play well because that was something that I really wanted to be a part of,” Abaddi says. “I was really excited as well because we were playing basketball at the highest level and in front of some great coaches. After the first day of tryouts, I wasn’t nervous anymore. I knew what I had to do and I was excited to get back to the gym.”

A decision has yet to be made, as to who will be next to join the Wildcat family. As for the 2009-2010 season, when the ‘Cats rout out the competition, the student section will chant: “We want Jason!” or “we want Russell!” for one last season. Abbadi and the others can only wait to see whose name the fans of ‘Nova Nation will cheer for next.