SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Tom Pecora was here for the Final Four, for the unofficial college basketball coaches’ convention that the event always is, but he flew back to New York on Saturday morning. Instead of staying for the two national semifinal games at the Alamodome, he chose instead to be home for Easter, to gather around the television with his family and friends as Eric Paschall had the best game of his life in the biggest game of his life.
A 6-foot-9 junior, Paschall was a marvel for Villanova in the Wildcats’ 95-79 victory over Kansas, making 10 of his 11 shots from the field, scoring a game-high 24 points, and it was natural for Pecora to feel pride and pleasure as he watched Paschall’s near-flawless performance.
In 2014-15, Paschall had been the Atlantic Ten’s rookie of the year at Fordham, where he had played for Pecora and planned to play for him for three more years. Except Fordham fired Pecora after that 2014-15 season, after he’d failed in the formidable task of turning around a program that has had two winning seasons over the last 26 years. Once he was gone, so was Paschall, and Pecora counseled him to consider transferring to a program with a coach Pecora trusted: his old friend Jay Wright.
“I knew how great he was,” Pecora, who had been an assistant under Wright at Hofstra and is now on Baker Dunleavy’s staff at Quinnipiac, said in a phone interview Sunday morning. “When he was with me at Fordham, he would influence games some nights and take eight or 10 shots just because he was a complete player. When it was time for him to move on, I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to look at a couple of schools, but my heart’s on my sleeve here. I want you to go play for Jay at Villanova.’”
“He said, ‘I want to be a part of a team. I want to be part of the family,’” Wright said. “He liked that at Fordham. He just lost his coach, but he felt they were family, and that’s what he was looking for.”
Wright recruited Paschall, who played high school ball at Dobbs Ferry High School in Westchester, N.Y., and spent a year of prep school at St. Thomas More in Oakdale, Conn., but Pecora had established a strong relationship with Paschall before Villanova began pursuing him in earnest. One day at a Fordham basketball camp, Pecora wandered over to a court where Paschall, still a high school underclassman then, was playing. Pecora’s son, Sean, who was 10 at the time, had been watching the game. Dad, Sean told his father, this one guy’s way too good to be playing with everybody else.
As it turned out, Paschall was so close with his family — he still returns home to New York each Sunday for dinner, if he can — that he wanted to stay within driving distance of home. Fordham was perfect in that regard. He averaged 15.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game during his freshman season there. “He was never outclassed athletically in the league,” Pecora said. “He would do one or two things every game where I knew: This kid could be player of the year in the league someday.” But the Rams went just 10-21, those 10 victories the most they had in any of Pecora’s five seasons there, his tenure doomed by the delusions of grandeur that afflict many mid-major programs.
Fordham had left the Patriot League for the Atlantic Ten in 1995 and has been overmatched since, posting a winning record in the A-10 just twice, unable to match the resources and facilities of most of the league’s other programs. At the time of Pecora’s firing and Paschall’s transfer, for instance, Fordham had just one strength coach for its roughly 500 athletes, and a late-season injury led to Paschall’s weight climbing to 268 pounds by the time he left.
“It was definitely my own fault,” Paschall said. “At the end of the year, I got hurt, and I just got lazy. I take full responsibility for why I got that heavy, and at Villanova, they just pushed me. They stayed on me.”
He is listed at 249 pounds now, and Pecora said he talks to NBA scouts now who liken Paschall, particularly in his body type and defensive ability, to the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green. Would Paschall have drawn such comparisons had he stayed at Fordham? Maybe. But this much is certain: His decision to transfer to Villanova, to a program that can lay a claim to being the country’s best, has helped his chances.
“When he went down and visited Jay and saw the way the program works, he bought in,” Pecora said. “Who would have known they would go on to win a national championship and go on the kind of run they went on? But nonetheless, he would have success because they’re the right kind of program with the right kind of people.”
That’s why Tom Pecora made certain to board that plane and fly those 1,800 miles home Saturday morning. There was a crowd in the house, Tom and Sean and people from Fordham, too, all of them cheering for Villanova and a young man they still cared about so much. “He’s such a freakin’ good kid, you smile from ear to ear,” Pecora said. “We’re just so happy for him. It’s nice to see the guys in the white hats win once in a while.”