We know he can recruit. We know he can motivate. And we know no one dresses better. But now we find out just how good a coach Jay Wright is.
Sure, he’s won two National Championships in the last three years at Villanova, including a 2018 campaign in which the 36-4 Wildcats won all six tournament games by double digits. But when you’ve got a stable full of thoroughbreds like the consensus Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, big men Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman and super sub Donte DiVincenzo, sometimes the best strategy is letting them do their thing and simply staying out of their way.
That won’t be the case next season, however. Even though both had a season of eligibility left it was expected all along that Brunson and Bridges would be NBA bound.
But for championship game hero DiVincenzo and Spellman, who could’ve had as much as two and three years remaining respectively to elect to join them, wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan.
Such sudden departures happen all the time at the University of Kentucky, where John Calipari prides himself on how quickly he can get his players ready for the pros. But for Wright, whose team’s mantra has always been to simply play “Villanova basketball,”-- work hard, play together, respect your opponent and let the score take care of itself—this is unchartered territory.
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Yet he seems eager to take on the challenge. “We’re going to have a lot of work to do,” said Wright after Spellman made it official he — like DiVincenzo — would be hiring an agent and staying in the draft. “It was bound to happen some year.”
“We’d been very fortunate in the past where guys had decided to stay. It turned out that this was the best move for all of these guys. We’re so happy for them, but now it’s time to build it up again, which is exciting,” he continued.
It’s not like ‘Nova’s cupboard has been left quite as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s. But clearly Wright faces his biggest test since 2012 when the Wildcats, three years removed from a trip to the Final Four, staggered home with a record of 13-19.
Not only did Wright weather that storm, going 20-14 and 29-5 in the ensuing years, but since dropping their last two games in 2013 it hasn’t happened since. During that span, they’ve gone an astounding 165-21 and won two NCAA titles.
That’s the legacy Paschall, oft-injured senior guard Phil Booth and the rest of the Wildcats will try to maintain, knowing the rest of the Big East undoubtedly sees the coming season as a chance for payback after so many years being Villanova’s victims.
Wright, who passed Al Severance to become Villanova’s winningest coach just before the Big East Tournament, was already anticipating he’d need reinforcements. He just didn’t expect so many.
“We really have just two proven players returning,” said the 56-year-old Wright, who will have to force feed sophomores Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, who played sparingly last season, into the lineup with his incoming freshmen and grad transfer student Joe Cremo.
“That’s just what a young team is. We’ve had four or five years in a row that we knew we had a good team coming back. You knew who the guys were and you just had to get them to be the best they could be,” he added.
“Now, we have a lot of question marks. It gives us a different type of coaching. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Part of that challenge will be indoctrinating highly regarded freshmen Jahvon Quinerly and Cole Swider, along with 3-point specialist Cremo, who averaged 17.8 points a game at Albany and becomes immediately eligible, into the system. He should also get back 6’9 forward Dylan Painter, who redshirted the past season after seeing limited action as a freshman.
Overall, it is just about how quickly they develop and fit into the mix will be the key to Nova’s season. For Wright, who elected to stick around for his 18th season rather than heed the call to the pros, it figures to be a test.
Unlike their coach, the reigning National Champions don’t figure to be dressed for success.