SAN ANTONIO, Texas – For the best-dressed man in college basketball, for a slave to fashion who spent much of Monday night’s national-championship game with his hands in the pockets of his sleek blue-pinstripe suit as if he were strolling along a Manhattan street, Jay Wright is happy to confess to a quality that belies his image as the smoothest, coolest coach around.
Just Sunday, just a day before Villanova’s 79-62 victory over Michigan lifted him into the rarest of air in his profession, Wright described a scene that plays out sometimes while he and his team are traveling through the tunnel of an NCAA tournament run. He’ll be on the bus ride to a Final Four game – and he’s won four of his five Final Four games at ‘Nova – and he’ll turn to his assistant coaches to ask a question with a wide-eyed schoolkid’s enthusiasm and disbelief.
“You’re like, ‘Can you believe this? Can you believe we’re here?’” he said. “That’s just the way we do it, and I really haven’t got my mind around the whole thing yet.”
A genuinely great coach
Let us do that, then, first. Let’s look back, quickly, at another season for the ages for the Wildcats: a 36-4 record, their second national title in three years, and the program’s third, a team that won each of its six games in this tournament by at least 12 points and whose affection for the three-point shot broke NCAA records and brought the fluidity and fireworks of the modern NBA to college hoops. If Kris Jenkins’ championship-winning shot will keep the 2016 Wildcats forever in memory, the cohesion and dominance of this team could have it stand the test of time as the best in Villanova history.
Now, though, let’s look ahead at what this night could mean for Wright. It is not an outlandish thing to assert that he will someday be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of just 14 coaches to win multiple national championships. Of those 14, only he, former Cincinnati coach Ed Jucker, and Billy Donovan are not Hall of Famers already – and Donovan eventually will be. He has won, over his career at Hofstra and ‘Nova, 544 games and lost just 250. At Villanova, he has won 72 percent of his games, leading the Wildcats to five Big East regular-season championships and three Big East Tournament championships. And for all the criticism he has taken for those recent early exits from the NCAA tournament, he and the Wildcats have still managed to advance to or beyond the Sweet 16 six times.
That’s the resume, already, of a genuinely great coach, and the context of the era makes Wright’s accomplishments all the more impressive. At a time when most big-time athletic programs rely on big-time football to keep their coffers overflowing, when college basketball’s traditional powers chase one-and-done players, Wright has elevated a small Catholic university into the nation’s model program. His kids arrive. They stay. They develop. They win championships. And Wright has mastered the process and criteria he uses to find them.
“We recruit guys that just want to be in college,” he said. “We want them to enjoy the college experience. And then we hope that after one year of enjoying the college experience, they have a really difficult decision to make.”
A chance to look back
He was asked about how winning a national championship changes a coach, and he was at once careful and revealing in his answer. “People look at you differently after you’ve won it, mostly positively,” he said. “But sometimes, if you don’t handle it well, they look at you negatively. They just look at you a lot more. You just get a lot more attention.”
If you don’t handle it well. Wright is well aware of how a title changed a coach he admired, Rollie Massimino – how it made Massimino arrogant and alienating. In the tunnel, though, there is little time or opportunity to contemplate such big-picture matters during a season. There is only the next game. “At the end of the year,” he said, “you look back.” When your team is struggling defensively, as the Wildcats did for a stretch this season, there is only the next game. When your team makes 18 three-pointers and romps to a 16-point win in the national semifinals, there is only the next game.
“So you see how you played against Kansas,” he said, “and then you’d go back and watch film and say, ‘OK, what can we do better against Michigan? Do we have a shot?’”
They had more than a shot. They withstood an early flurry of baskets from the Wolverines’ talented center, Moe Wagner, and shook off a seven-point deficit to lead by nine at halftime. Wright made a few key strategic decisions, putting Mikal Bridges on Wagner to slow him down, getting seven excellent minutes from Collin Gillespie off the bench to solidify the Wildcats defense, and the second half was a formality, and at the final horn Wright hugged Phil Booth and let a satisfied smile wash over his face.
So now it’s the end of the year for the Villanova Wildcats, and they can look back and grip tight that netting that they trimmed from the rims at the Alamodome on Monday night.
All that’s left is to ask the best coach in college basketball a question whose answer he should know by now.
Hey, Jay Wright, can you believe you’re here?