As Kansas prepared to play Villanova in the NCAA national semifinal game last weekend, coach Bill Self texted West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team had lost to the Wildcats in the Sweet 16.
“What do you think?” Self asked.
“You better hope Spellman doesn’t shoot the ball well,” Huggins replied.
In the category of breaking news, this didn’t qualify. Every coach who had to put his team against Villanova this season was aware that what made the Wildcats unique from most defensive challenges was that the big men, redshirt freshman Omari Spellman and transfer junior Eric Paschall, could make shots from distance.
It was just one thing on the list of what Villanova could do – their guards could all get into the lane and cause havoc, their defenders all had length, speed, and toughness, and their experience made them impervious to big-game pressure – but it was a tough one to confront. Most big defenders can’t chase their man to the perimeter and then recover if he decides to put the ball on the floor and reverse course to the basket.
In the particular case of Kansas, Self would be guarding Spellman with a 7-foot center name Udoka Azubuike, who was spectacularly unsuited to either following Spellman to the perimeter or dealing with the mismatch of a defensive switch.
“Are you going to put Azubuike on [Jalen] Brunson?” Self asked, rhetorically, after the Jayhawks lost. “Certain things we can’t do, which obviously Villanova can do. It looked good in practice, but it certainly wasn’t very good.”
Jay Wright has many admirers, particularly after Villanova completed its run to a second NCAA championship in three years. But few are as ardent as his peers in the college coaching ranks, none of whom needed this year’s outcome to confirm that.
“He’s kind of the poster child or role model for a lot of coaches that are just getting into the collegiate level,” said Avery Johnson of Alabama, whose team lost to the Wildcats in the second round. “You can see the blueprint of having even centers who can stretch the floor. When you’ve got centers who can make the three, that’s kind of that Euro-style offense, and that’s not only where the NBA game has gone, but where the collegiate game is.”
Wright wasn’t the first to discover that distance shooting was far more than the mathematics of getting three points instead of two. But he was among the first to truly spread the floor with shooters at every position, then exploit the advantages that presented both inside and out.
“This is the Golden State Warriors here. This is a Draymond Green type of thing where your guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose Wolverines lost the championship game, 79-62, Villanova’s sixth straight double-figures win in the NCAA tournament. “This is the way they play every day. This is what they do.”
For Villanova, as the story has always been told, the philosophy was borne out of desperation in the 2005 tournament, when forward Curtis Sumpter tore his ACL in the second game and Wright opted to start four guards – Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry – in the regional semifinal against North Carolina. The Wildcats lost on a controversial call but played even-up with a Tar Heels team that had four players about to be taken among the top 14 picks in the next NBA draft.
“We came out of that game, saying, ‘Whoa, man, we might have found something,’ ” Wright said. “It was pure necessity, and it was so much fun to coach. We really didn’t have any other choice. But we knew we kind of stumbled onto something, and then we kind of went with it.”
The progression from that team to the title teams – with big shooters like the current ones, and, in 2015-16, a power forward like Kris Jenkins who could also fill the basket – merely meant finding interchangeable athletes of all sizes. Not necessarily easy, but that became the recruiting and coaching imperative.
“Jay Wright changed basketball. He’s the one who invented small ball, where your four-man can shoot threes. They always have four guys on the floor who can shoot,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, the victim of Villanova in the East Region final. “I can’t tell you how many players over the years I’ve made watch Villanova tape in my office, trying to talk them [into] playing the four when their AAU coach and their mom and their high school coach think they’re a two. ‘Look, Villanova does it.’ So this guy, he’s transformed basketball.”
Well, that’s a mouthful, although it might be true, or at least true for Villanova. It requires also building a program in which players stick around a little while, and a very talented recruit will even take a redshirt year now and then, and the concept of sharing the basketball is met with enthusiasm instead of disdain. That’s not a formula that would work everywhere.
“In the last five years, they’ve lost 21 games. Think about that,” Self said. “So they’ve recruited well, they have depth, and that also means their culture is great. But even with that being said, you still have to find a way to win games that you’re not supposed to win or close games. And Jay and his staff have figured out how to do that. They put five years together that are elite and would be considered one of the best five years anybody [has ever] had in college basketball. They have maximized their potential and got as close against their ceiling over time as anybody has. He’s respected years later, and that’s really hard to do.”
Seeing where offense was going before anyone else is just one example of why Wright is considered the coaching standard by those in the best position to judge that. It just happened to be the most obvious one on this year’s team. There are other aspects, plenty of them.
His teams were also among the very first to front ball screens on defense, which tends to blow up standard pick-and-roll offense if you do it right, and, naturally, they do. There is continuity from season to season that schools employing one-and-done athletes can’t hope to match. His players buy in to the principles because he looks for that kind of player, but also because Wright is a master salesman as well as an accomplished tactician. It’s quite a package.
“He’s certainly going to be a Hall of Fame coach,” said Mike Jones, coach of first-round opponent Radford. “I’ve said it for a long time.”
The other coaches know whom they’re dealing with, and, again, it isn’t breaking news to them. Now, the rest of the country is fully aware, too. It isn’t luck, although luck can be a factor in the outcome of games. It isn’t talent, because somewhere superior talent loses every day. It is whatever word you want to give to the genius of turning a torn knee ligament into an opportunity to invent the next way to play basketball.