Taking the Wright advice

Kyle Scudilla

It was unspeakably difficult for Curtis Sumpter to sit and watch last season as his teammates won a share of the Big East title, made a run through the NCAA Tournament and moved on from Villanova. However, the star forward heeded the advice of those closest to him and made the best decision for his future.

“Once it was time to make a decision all I said to him was, ‘look, as your coach I’m going to let you make this decision, I’m going to support you,'” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said. “If I were your parent, and that’s how I look at all of you, I would tell you: don’t waste a year where you could come back next year and have a great year – a full year – just to help the team. We’re going to be okay. Because I know in his mind, he was worried that he was letting everyone down. I said we are going to be okay.”

The road back from a second knee surgery for Sumpter has been a long and dreary one, but the fifth-year senior is finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That doesn’t mean he will soon forget how he reached this point.

This year’s preseason practice schedule has to feel a bit like déjà vu for Sumpter. It was around this time last year that he was making his way back from his first knee surgery, after he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the 2005 NCAA Tournament against Florida. His second injury also hit his left ACL, but this time, it was caused by an awkward fall after accidental contact with teammate Will Sheridan during a preseason practice.

The news of Sumpter’s second severe injury hit Villanova’s campus on the date of last year’s Hoops Mania celebration, sending shockwaves throughout the school’s student body. Coming off a narrowly-contested one point loss without Sumpter to North Carolina, the eventual tournament champion, the team was expected to do big things in 2006, especially with almost the entire 2005 squad making its return.

Without their All-Big East Second Team forward in the paint, suddenly many wondered if the Wildcats had what it took to compete against bigger, more physical teams. Wright’s innovative four-guard lineup quickly started winning games and turning heads, but many couldn’t help but wonder how much better the high-ranked team would have been if Sumpter could make a return.

Sumpter’s recovery and possible return after surgery was always a current story in the backdrop of Villanova’s historic season. There was speculation in both local and national media outlets as to whether or not the star forward would come back in time to help the ‘Cats and possibly make them the favorites to win it all in March.

The decision and pressure was tough for Sumpter and those close to him. If he came back, it would only be for a few games, but if he were not ready to contribute, his attempt would have been in vain. If he played at the end of the season, he would have used his last year of eligibility on a handful of games and would have potentially damaged his stock as a strong candidate for the NBA Draft. At the same time, feeling like he could be the missing piece to a championship puzzle tempted Sumpter to return.

“I thought about it a lot,” Sumpter said. “If it wasn’t for Coach Wright and my parents drilling it in my head, telling me that it’s not a smart decision, I probably would have done it. As high school students, that’s what we said we wanted to do, we wanted to get to that point. Any way I could help out, that’s what I wanted to do.”

The decision was finally made in February, less than a month away from the NCAA Tournament. Sumpter took a medical red-shirt and would return to Villanova for a fifth year. Looking back at last season, Wright seems confident that the approach Sumpter took to the situation was the best choice he could have made.

“I knew he wanted to come back and play, so I wanted him to think that way,” Wright said. “It brought spirit to his rehab. Because he thought he might be coming back, he was working hard at it, so I was letting that go. But in the end, I knew he was too smart to just make a decision; he would listen to his parents, he would take my counsel.”

Now, Sumpter has returned to the Wildcats, but it’s a much different team than it was in 2005 against Florida. Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Jason Fraser are gone, and they, with Sumpter, formed arguably Villanova’s most-heralded recruiting class in its history. Kyle Lowry also left after just two seasons to pursue the NBA, leaving Mike Nardi as the only remaining member of last year’s famous four-guard lineup.

Sumpter returns as a tri-captain, sharing the title with Nardi and Sheridan, and looks to lead a younger, but bigger, Villanova squad into the upcoming season. While the focus is on his physical ability to perform and become the player he once was, Sumpter said that his knee is fine and that he’s just working into getting up to the speed of the collegiate game. He even said that he expects his knee brace to be off by the season opener.

“It’s not like last year,” Sumpter said. “I’m playing; I’m with everything; I’m doing everything. I’m fine.”

The more interesting thing to watch in Sumpter’s development as the season progresses could be his mental improvement over the past year. Spending an entire season on the bench gave him a whole new look at the game of basketball.

“Coach started sitting me up further on the bench as a coach because he wanted me to be more involved with the coaching and stuff like that as the games went on,” Sumpter said.

Wright feels that the experience Sumpter gained last year has already gone a long way in improving him as a player and a leader.

“I think he’s got probably the best understanding of anyone in college basketball of what coaches are looking for because he sat up there with us,” Wright said. “There were a number of games late in the season where we would come out of the locker room, the captains would get the team together and then Curtis, like a coach, would get them together. They responded to him.”

Wright credited Sumpter’s ability to take the coaches’ messages and translate them into “player-ese.” He is even more excited about Sumpter’s ability to communicate while on the court.

“It has a big impact and I think he’s going to be able to do that all this year,” Wright said.

When Sumpter leaves Villanova after this season, there is a real possibility that he could follow the likes of Foye, Ray and Lowry into the NBA, but he is focused on the season ahead, most notably on playing a full season injury-free, and appreciating what he will miss about the school once his time here is done.

“This is a family; it’s not just coming to college and preparing yourself for the NBA,” Sumpter said. “These are guys you are going to have relationships with for the rest of your lives.”

Watching Sumpter run down the steps of the Pavilion’s student section as he was introduced during last week’s Hoops Mania celebration was a welcome sight to Villanova’s fans, as chants of “Curtis Sumpter” echoed throughout the arena before he was even introduced. Those around him, Sumpter included, feel that he is finally healthy and ready to perform to the fullest of his ability.

If those predictions come true, Sumpter, surgically-repaired left knee and all, should have enough to help carry his Villanova family to another magical March Madness run.