According to Jay Wright, it really starts as soon as the team gets off the airplane and comes down the steps like the visiting dignitaries they are. You can talk about the Final Four back home until you are Villanova blue in the face, but nothing really prepares the players for walking into the boiling cauldron of the biggest event in their sport.
“I know it’s overwhelming. It has been every time I’ve been there. It is for me, even though I’m getting up there in years and experience,” Wright said. “You get off the plane and they have military men and women in uniform holding up flags, and you walk underneath the flags and they’re saluting you and it hits you right away. You feel like, ‘I’m not worthy of this,’ but we’re going to take it.”
Wright, very fortunately, had Final Four experience to reference as he prepared the Wildcats for this weekend and as he guides them through a four-team tournament that isn’t quite like anything else they have ever seen. The coach believes the enormity of the event got in the way of their performance in the 2009 Final Four. He wanted the team to live the experience as much as possible and believes the Wildcats tried to do too much. They were a No. 3 seed and probably weren’t supposed to beat eventual champion North Carolina in the national semifinals anyway, but Wright always felt his team could have been more mentally ready.
When Villanova returned two years ago, he pared down the activities, made it more of a business trip and, well, maybe A didn’t lead to B, but they did win the national championship by beating Carolina on the Kris Jenkins shot that will hang forever over the school’s basketball lore.
“We’re going to do it closer to how we did it in 2016, but with some little adjustments based on our personnel,” Wright said. “What’s really different is that we’ve got guys who won a national championship. Not too many teams get to play in the Final Four with guys who won it. Then, we have young guys who haven’t experienced anything. They’re really excited. I like having the youth — it’s really valuable — and having guys who played in a national championship game.”
Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played in the 2016 championship, and Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall were already in the program and traveled with the team. For the other three members of Villanova’s normal rotation – freshmen Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman – this is new territory, starting with climbing the steps to the spotlit court in the middle of a football stadium.
In 2009, it was the first year that the NCAA went to a full stadium as opposed to a half-stadium, walled off for the game. The teams got an open practice on the court, but did their actual practice work at another location. Usually, the open practice, in front of a big crowd, is little more than a series of drills and some shooting. Between then and 2016, the NCAA added a closed practice on the actual stadium court so teams could really get after it there and settle in a little more.
“They gave us that closed practice, and it really made a difference. By the time the game comes around, it’s your third day in there,” Wright said. “I think that made a big difference, and in 2009, I thought [not having that] affected us.”
Wright’s first trip to the Final Four came in 1985, the year Villanova beat Georgetown in Lexington. He was an assistant coach at the University of Rochester, attended the annual coaches’ convention, and also took in the open practices, notepad in hand, because he didn’t know those weren’t the real practices.
“I was so naïve. Some guys went out there and screwed around, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, these guys aren’t all that disciplined.’ I had no idea they already practiced,” Wright said. “All of us as coaches have been sitting in the stands far more times than we’ve been out on the court, and all of us envied the guys who were out there. You try to make that [open practice] time beneficial for your players, because you get to shoot and get a feel for the court, but you also put in a few drills that you might not normally do, but you know might help a younger coach who’s watching.”
In 1985, Wright had to leave Lexington on Sunday, the day before the championship game, because he was also the assistant intramurals director at Rochester and had to set up the gym for floor hockey on Monday night. He did that, then went to the apartment of one of the soccer coaches and sat on the rug and watched what happened with Villanova and Georgetown.
Here we are, 33 years later, and every coach in the country watches Jay Wright and takes notes. The Final Four, as big and overwhelming as it can be, has been good to him before, and he expects it to be again this season.
“You’re never confident about coming home a champion, but I’m confident this team will play hard and play together,” Wright said. “Sometimes you might worry if a team is mature enough to handle all these distractions, and still play hard, play humble, play hungry. I’m sure about this team.”