Thank goodness the Villanova administration never paid attention to the alumni and fans who wanted to get rid of Jay Wright.
It seems like forever ago that people were questioning Wright’s coaching acumen. The opinion that Wright’s teams underachieved and couldn’t win the big one were more than just mere whispers. And that perspective was gaining momentum just a few short years ago.
Those voices have been silenced by Villanova’s national championship last year and their continued success this season.
The second-ranked Wildcats’ 73-57 win over 24th-ranked Xavier on Saturday was the 500th victory of Wright’s remarkable coaching career. The victory total includes 122 wins while head coach at Hofstra. In Wright’s 16 seasons at the helm at Villanova, the Wildcats have compiled a 378-159 record. During the past four seasons, Villanova’s record is an incredible 121-15.
Wright has accomplished all of this without an annual arrival of elite recruits. Don’t get me wrong. The Wildcats bring in terrific players. You won’t hear Wright complain about the quality of his players. But there isn’t a steady stream of elite recruits, as there are at Kentucky, Kansas and some of the other larger schools consistently in the national title hunt.
Yet, as if to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, the Wildcats are right back in the national championship hunt again this season. They are 24-2 and ranked second in the nation. The NCAA released a preliminary Sweet 16 on Saturday. Villanova was the top overall seed.
The Wildcats have reached that level despite losing center Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono to graduation. Furthermore, guard Phil Booth has been unavailable nearly the entire season.
The loss of three key players from the national championship team could be used as an excuse for a drop in performance, but Wright doesn’t allow it. The Wildcats aren’t permitted to feel sorry for themselves.
Guard Josh Hart is a phenomenal player. But the Wildcats are far from a one-man team. Championship game hero Kris Jenkins continues to be an important presence, as is sophomore guard Jalen Brunson. Mikal Bridges has developed into an important player at both ends of the court. Redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo has made important and timely contributions, as has redshirt sophomore forward Eric Paschall.
Losing senior forward Darryl Reynolds, as Villanova did for Saturday’s win at Xavier, could have been disastrous for some teams. Reynolds (6-foot-10, 240 pounds) plays an important role in the Wildcats’ defense, particularly around the basket. But Villanova barely missed a beat against the Musketeers.
The way all the pieces seem to fit is a tribute to Wright’s coaching ability. He helps his players improve (Bridges is the best example) and melds their talents so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Contrary to the old criticism that Wright’s teams underachieved, it appears that Wright’s teams the past two years have achieved beyond their talent level. Villanova’s consistent excellence is a testament to Wright’s ability to remain on an even keel.
The movement to get rid of Wright has died out. The fear now is that if the Wildcats become the first team in a decade to repeat as NCAA champions Wright may move to the NBA to tackle new challenges.
INJURY BUG: Saint Joseph’s can’t shake the injury bug. James Demery missed 10 games during the first portion of the season due to a foot injury. No sooner did Demery return then they lost leading scorer Shavar Newkirk to a season-ending torn ACL.
The injury bug struck again Saturday. Lamarr Kimble, who became the Hawks’ leading scorer after Newkirk tore his ACL, left Saturday’s 87-76 loss to Massachusetts with an injury to his left foot.
GOOD GUY: Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli was honored with the Good Guy Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association at their banquet earlier this month. Although appreciative of the award, Martelli would probably prefer to have all of his players healthy.
FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME: Penn finally posted its first Ivy League victory of the season, a 70-62 win over Columbia on Friday. Sam Jones scored a season-high 17 points to lead the Quakers (8-12 overall, 1-6 Ivy).
OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN: While Penn’s men’s basketball team waited a long time for its first victory, the women’s team is undefeated in the Ivy League. The Quakers (14-6 overall, 7-0 Ivy League) have won 11 straight Ivy League games.
IVY TOURNAMENT AT PALESTRA: The Ivy League will be holding postseason basketball tournaments for the first time in its history. The top four men’s teams and top four women’s teams will compete at the inaugural Ivy League Tournament on March 11-12 at the Palestra.
PALESTRA BIRTHDAY: Penn recently celebrated the 90th birthday of the legendary Palestra. Unfortunately, the Quakers suffered a 64-49 loss to Princeton on that night. If you need evidence of the reverence in which the Palestra is held, consider that San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich held a practice at the Palestra this past week when the Spurs were in town to face the 76ers.
UNHAPPY EXPLORER: La Salle head coach Dr. John Giannini was not pleased after Saturday’s 64-52 loss to Richmond, the Explorers’ fifth loss in their last seven games. La Salle turned the ball over 24 times during the loss.
According to Inquirer correspondent Andrew Albert, Giannini said, “I’m astounded at how poorly we played on an individual level. We couldn’t dribble, pass, or shoot. It looked like we had never played basketball before. I think Richmond set a tone of aggressiveness on defense that we just didn’t respond to.”
OPPOSING PERSPECTIVES: Temple has had four different scorers in its last four games. If you’re a glass half-full person, that means the Owls have balance. If you’re a glass half-empty person, it means the Owls don’t have a “go-to” scorer when they need one.
The Owls, who enter Sunday’s game at Memphis with a 4-8 record in the American Athletic Conference, clearly need to step up their game or else they’re going to make an early exit from the conference tournament.
TEAM OF THE CENTURY: Drexel allowed more than 100 points in consecutive games, a 108-85 loss to William&Mary and a 104-103 double-overtime loss to Towson on Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, respectively. Those were the middle games during a four-game losing streak.
Drexel turned the tables on William&Mary on Thursday with a 79-61 victory that ended its losing streak. The Dragons kept the score down against Towson, but were unable to come up with a victory, dropping a 69-65 decision.
TEAM OF THE CENTURY II? Connecticut’s women’s basketball team takes a 99-game winning streak into Monday’s game against 6th-ranked South Carolina. How dominant are the Huskies? Temple is 19-5, but Connecticut built a 52-18 lead by halftime against the Owls on Feb. 1 and then coasted to a 97-69 victory.
DILLON REACHES MILESTONE: Drexel women’s head coach Denise Dillon notched the 250th victory of her coaching career Thursday when the Dragons defeated William&Mary, 65-48. Dillon, who was a three-time All-Big East selection while a player at Villanova, has spent her entire head coaching career at Drexel.
HALL OF A CLASS: The Big 5 Hall of Fame induction will take place April 17 at the Palestra. Saint Joseph’s guard Jameer Nelson, the Hawks’ all-time leader in points and assists, headline the class. Nelson was the national player of the year in 2004, when he led the Hawks to 27 straight wins and the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Other inductees include Temple guard Lynn Greer, Villanova guard Randy Foye, Penn guard Ibrahim Jaaber, La Salle women’s star Carlene Hightower, former Villanova player George Raveling, and former Inquirer sports columnist Bill Lyon.