When Maalik Wayns takes the court at Villanova's on-campus Pavilion, he's cheered on as much as any Wildcats player.
When Villanova plays off-campus at the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Philadelphia, Wayns is welcomed not only as a Wildcat but also as a member of Philly's proud point guard tradition. He is a graduate of Philadelphia Roman Catholic High.
Just as Wayns receives extra attention when Villanova leaves campus, he is preparing for added responsibility this season.
With the departures of Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, Wayns is the top returning scorer on a team without a scholarship senior. Only two seasons removed from the Final Four, Villanova does not have a player remaining from that 2009 team.
Saying "As Wayns goes, so goes Villanova" is not an exaggeration.
"He's going to have as big an impact on this team individually as any player we've had in a long time," Villanova coach Jay Wright says.
In Wayns, Wright has a guard who has been groomed for a spot like this since before he even arrived on campus. Former Villanova point guard Kyle Lowry, who preceded Wayns on the Team Philly AAU squad, was a mentor for Wayns throughout high school. When Wayns arrived on campus, Scottie Reynolds took the freshman guard under his wing.
Wayns' aspirations to become a Villanova guard started with Lowry.
"Kyle Lowry was like my big brother," Wayns says. "I watched him growing up, him being from Philly - his toughness and tenacity, the way he attacks the rim."
The fifth-ranked point guard in the 2009 signing class, Wayns certainly wasn't an unknown out of high school, but he's needed time to develop into a Big East-caliber guard.
Playing in a backcourt with Reynolds, Fisher and Stokes wasn't conducive to playing time as a freshman. As a sophomore, Wayns became a starter, more than doubled his scoring production and finished second on the team in assists.
"He is kind of the consummate Philly guard," Wright says. "He's tough, he's blue collar; he's not flashy. He's very competitive and very solid. He's got a solid type of game, an under-control type of game."
Wright hopes that kind of consistency is contagious.
In the past two seasons, Villanova was ranked in the top 10 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats have not made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in either season. In 2009-10, Villanova started 22-2 before ending the season on a 3-6 slide. Last season, Villanova started 16-1 but lost its final six games.
"We had a lot of preseason hype on us and a lot of success early in the year," Wayns says. "We got caught up in looking too far down the road."
Wayns averaged 15.6 points over the final seven games last season, but he made a critical gaffe that ended Villanova's Big East Tournament bid. With Villanova leading by one, Wayns' errant inbounds pass was stolen by USF's Anthony Carter, who scored the go-ahead layup.
Wayns made two ensuing free throws, but Carter answered with the game-winning layup with 5.1 seconds left for a stunning 70-69 victory for the 15th-seeded Bulls.
Wayns was devastated and apologized to his teammates after the game. Although the season ended after a loss in the NCAA tournament to George Mason in the round of 64, Wayns retained the faith of his coach.
"Of all the times I've watched him, he's hit so many big shots and made big plays. That was the only time I saw him make a play like that, in his high school career to his AAU career to college," Wright says. "I just dismiss that as a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Villanova signed the nation's No. 3 recruiting class in 2009, but no one in the four-man class has yet emerged as a star. Only Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou have become starters. Three members of the class remain, and Villanova coaches will look to them to lead this season.
NOTE: *-Transferred to George Washington in August
Nevertheless, Wayns is aiming not to make another critical mistake. He said he has watched more film this summer, both alone and with newly hired assistant Billy Lange, who left his job as Navy's coach to become an assistant to Wright. Wayns has watched his own play and that of NBA point guards and former Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, who led the Huskies to the national championship.
The progress was apparent during Villanova's European tour in August, Wright says. The Wildcats went 1-4, but the competition level was higher than most international trips. Villanova faced national teams from Senegal, the Netherlands and Israel preparing for international play.
The key part of the experience was Wayns' role as the focal point of Villanova's offense. Wright called Wayns' leadership in the tournament "glaring."
"They did everything they could to keep the ball out of his hands," Wright says. "They face-guarded him, they double-teamed him, they double-teamed him on pick-and-rolls.
"He was presented with a lot of situations I think are going to be similar to the Big East."
A little improvement for Wayns could go a long way. Last season, he averaged 13.8 points per game despite shooting less than 40 percent from the field and 27.1 percent from 3-point range. If he can improve those efficiency numbers, Wayns could be a first-team All-Big East guard.
"I knew I had to become a better decision-maker, a better playmaker, better at making decisions at the end of the game," Wayns says. "The ball is going to be in my hands a lot more this year. I want my improvement to be yearly. I want to get better every year."
He's entering his moment in the spotlight, and Wayns is conscious of what his predecessors did. Reynolds, who led Villanova to the 2009 Final Four, reminded him of the importance of leading the next group of players along.
"I learned from those guys," Wayns says. "Now it's my turn to be the leader and to lead the young guys and see what we can do. Hopefully, I can lead them in the right direction."