Sielski: Wright faces choice on NBA again

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Jay Wright, one of the most successful coaches in Philadelphia Big 5 history, is in his 15th season at Villanova.

HOUSTON - The last time Jay Wright led Villanova to the Final Four, it took less than two months after that national semifinal loss to North Carolina for an NBA team to tempt him with the opportunity to become a head coach. The year was 2009. The team was the 76ers. Their president at the time was Ed Stefanski, whose ties to the city and friendship with Wright were reason enough for Wright to come in for a sit-down and contemplate taking the job.

The following week, Wright withdrew his name from consideration, but already he had set himself up for a similar overture in the future. Here was a coach who had taken a small Catholic school, one that didn't enjoy the spoils of the NCAA's football money machine, to within two victories of a national championship, and seven years later, here he is again, this time one win away. And if the Wildcats manage to beat North Carolina on Monday night - and maybe even if they don't - the pull on Wright to leave Villanova for the NBA will be more powerful than it was then.

"I'm probably not ready for that," Wright said Sunday. "I'm really not trying to think about that right now."

That has been Wright's stock defense throughout the NCAA tournament to any inquiry that didn't deal with Villanova's next opponent. All he can see is the six inches in front of his face, and truth be told, his team has played with that same single-mindedness, winning its five games by an average margin of more than 24 points. If the Wildcats sustain such excellence Monday night against the Tar Heels, if Wright ends up hoisting that championship trophy and answering Jim Nantz's banal questions, it will be natural for him in the days to follow to ask himself what worlds he has left to conquer in college basketball.

"I just don't know," former Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro, who hired Wright in 2001, said Sunday in a telephone interview. "Obviously, it is the pinnacle if you win, but he also has such a strong devotion to his team, to Villanova. It would have to be a really, really compelling opportunity to make him look at something like that."

Wright would also have to weigh whether any franchise interested in hiring him would be the proper fit. Based on Wright's appearance alone, that figure he cuts as if he were once the Homecoming King of Hollywood High, it's easy to envision the Los Angeles Lakers making a play for him as they move on from Kobe Bryant and try to rebuild with young players. And his popularity among those New York sportswriters who cover college basketball - from the seven years he spent as Hofstra's head coach - would have the tabloid back pages plastered with praise if the Brooklyn Nets could coax him to come back.

But those would be superficial factors compared to the key question: whether Wright could reach and inspire older, richer, more jaded professionals as he does his Villanova players. These kids are giving him what every coach wants, he said Sunday: their unflagging attention, the recognition that they are listening to him and doing what he asks of them. If he were to give up those moments of joy, there's no guarantee he'd get them back.

"If you yell at Kobe Bryant, tell him to dive on the ball, I'm not too sure if he would go down for the ball," junior guard Josh Hart said. "It's hard with the NBA because you have so many egos, but for the right teams, he'd be good. You see Brad Stevens and what he's been doing with the Celtics. They're a young group of guys, kind of like a college team, just going out and playing as hard as they can, helping each other out, stepping up for each other."

All weekend here, Wright has noted how good he has it at Villanova, how well his methods mesh with the university's mission and culture. He doubts that what he does would work so well somewhere else - presumably in the NBA, too - and part of that doubt involves his having an understanding of who he is and what he has to do to keep from losing that sense of self. As close as he remains to Rollie Massimino, Wright has taken care to internalize the lessons from Massimino's career at Villanova, from the way the old coach changed after that improbable 1985 national championship. Massimino went from the roly-poly, lovable Rollie - a coach who seemed to treat his entire program as if every day were one giant Sunday dinner and all were welcome to fill their dishes with pasta and gravy - to an egotist whose ambition alienated Villanova from the rest of the Big Five and Massimino from his friends, his allies, even the university itself.

Wright and Nicastro have spoken often of Wright's desire to keep his bond with Villanova strong, regardless of the heights to which he might guide the basketball program, and to maintain the measure of humility that Massimino didn't. "If it's good [Monday], I'm going to have to deal with that," Wright said. "And if it's not good, I'm going to have to deal with, 'Ah, you didn't win the big game.' That's part of your challenge as a coach."

Either way, he's likely to have another challenge in the weeks ahead: the choice between staying at a place he treasures and leaving for somewhere new and bigger. And in that moment, Jay Wright will have to weigh what matters to him more: what he might gain or what, perhaps after winning everything, he would lose.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski