Monday, April 27, 2015

Jay Wright remains focused as the spotlight grows on Villanova

Villanova coach Jay Wright said the same thing so many times after the Wildcats' 77-59 rout of Georgetown on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center that by the end of his press conference, you could actually believe him.

Jay Wright remains focused as the spotlight grows on Villanova

Villanova head coach Jay Wright. (Laurence Kesterson/AP)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright. (Laurence Kesterson/AP)

Villanova coach Jay Wright said the same thing so many times after the Wildcats' 77-59 rout of Georgetown on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center that by the end of his press conference, you could actually believe him. 

Wright was asked if it has been difficult to keep his team focused as it has rolled through an unexpectedly successful season. And he was asked if it will be difficult to maintain that focus now as the Wildcats prepare to head to Madison Square Garden next week. 

"Normally, it's very difficult, but it has not been difficult with this group," the coach of the Big East regular season champions said. "They're very mature." 

"It hasn't been that hard, really, because of these guys," the coach of the No. 6-ranked team in the nation said. "I can't take any credit for that - these guys have been a really unique group." 

"I'm sorry I sound like a broken record," the coach of a team that could get a No. 1 team in the NCAA tournament if things keep going right said. "I really don't have to say anything to them. They just play that way." 

Darrun Hilliard even got in on the act as he sat next to Wright on the podium. 

"Coach makes sure he doesn't let it get to our heads," he said of a group of players that could be back in New York for the Sweet 16 two weeks after the Big East tournament, if all the breaks go right. "It is what it is - today is today and tomorrow is a new day, so we've just got to keep moving forward and getting better." 

But eventually, Hilliard cracked. Someone asked him if the players would take a moment to enjoy their accomplishment, and the junior guard conceded they would. 

"Yeah, most definitely," he said. "Tonight we'll enjoy it, and live it up today and tomorrow - in a good way." 

Wright laughed. 

This Villanova team does not have any big stars that will be taken in the first round of the next NBA draft. It does not have the sizzle and hype of Duke, Kansas, Syracuse and others. 

It just wins. 

No, the Big East is not what it used to be. And yes, most of the wins came when a lot of people weren't watching, while the losses to Creighton and Syracuse came when a lot of people were. 

But the Orange and the Bluejays are the only teams the Wildcats have lost to all season. Three defeats in total, spread amid 28 wins. 

Wright said he first saw signs that the season could be something special when Villanova beat Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. 

"As a staff, we just said there's something unique about these guys and their mentality." 

Seven days after beating Iowa, Villanova went into Hagan Arena and thumped Saint Joseph's by 30 points.

If you take the name off the front of the jersey, does beating three other NCAA tournament teams mean something? I think so. 

Still, Wright refused to yield as he was peppered with questions about this season's accomplishments. 

There was one thing Wright admitted he's happy about, though: the fact that his team won't have to play its first Big East tournament game until Thursday. Whereas in past trips to the Garden, the Wildcats would take the floor on Tuesday or Wednesday, now they have four full days to prepare for the bright lights of Broadway. 

"We just played Thursday night, and we did a walk-through practice yesterday," Wright said. "For me as a coach, these next couple of days are going to be really good for us to catch up." 

It affects the players, too - though Wright wasn't as amused as the rest of the room when James Bell offered his view. 

"It's a little different - we usually get more school off," Bell said. 

"Always got to remember the perspective, man," Wright interrupted. "That was the last thing I was thinking about." 

Bell then pointed out that if Villanova had been the No. 1 seed in the old Big East, they probably would have been off until Thursday anyway. But this Big East is not that Big East, and that's likely part of why the Wildcats are where they are. 

Nobody is quite sure what the atmosphere will be like at the Garden without Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and the other schools that will spend Championship Week elsewhere. Tickets were put on sale to the general public for the first time in 11 years, and there are still a fair number available. 

"It's definitely different," Wright said. "I don't know if it's going to be better or worse, but you can't deny that it's different." 

Judging by the buzz in the Wells Fargo Center crowd on Saturday, though, winning a first Big East regular-season championship since 1982 doesn't need many qualifications. 

So now it's off to New York. And if everything goes right, the Wildcats could be back at the Garden again later this month for the NCAA tournament's East regional. It's the first time in decades that New York will host NCAA games, and the atmosphere is sure to be electric. 

Wright admitted it was tempting to think about what playing on that stage would be like. But he also said there are downsides to playing too close to home. As evidence, he pointed to closer-than-expected NCAA tournament wins in Philadelphia over Monmouth in 2006 and American in 2009.

"The crowd turned on us - not that they were against us, but just because it was a possible upset," he said. "There's pressure on you when you play at home and you're down 14."

Then Wright reverted to type. 

"We don't care if we're a first seed or a second seed," he said. "There's good things about being in the East and there's good things about going away. We really don't care." 

He really did seem to mean it.

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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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