Villanova has clawed their way to another Big East Tournament title. Jay Wright has two national titles, but this might be his finest hour.
A season that featured losses to Furman and Penn, a 27-point defeat at home, a blown 19-point lead in conference play, and a 3-5 stretch to end the season doesn’t exactly add up to a Big East title. In some programs, it might even be grounds for a coach’s dismissal.
For nearly two decades, though, Jay Wright has been a different coach. He’s one that has transformed the Villanova Wildcats into a likewise different program.
Nearing a second decade of almost-continuous basketball success, Villanova managed to set a new precedent on Saturday night. Their narrow 74-72 win over the Seton Hall Pirates at Madison Square Garden marked the first time in Big East history that one squad captured three consecutive conference tournament titles.
Raising two national championship banners over the last three NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournaments, Villanova has fully established itself as a hardwood powerhouse under Wright’s guidance. But somehow this season, one that many foresee ending without another national trophy hoist, will go down as the magnum opus for the stylish Wright.
This was, technically speaking, supposed to be the year that the Villanova Fortune 500 company (a term often spoken by CBS’ Jon Rothstein) finished in the red. They were still expected to be decent … after all, the Wildcats topped the Big East preseason poll … but their newfound championship reputation might’ve been creating some blinders.
After all, the Wildcats had lost a shocking quartet of champions to the NBA Draft. Juniors Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson were expected exits, but sophomore Donte DiVincenzo left after MVP honors in the 2018 national title game. Omari Spellman also surprisingly departed after a single season.
The opening national polls had them in the top ten, but a national championship rematch was a rude awakening from the good times. The Michigan Wolverines undressed the Wildcats on their own campus, spoiling the grand reopening of Finneran Pavilion in 73-46 fashion. The Wildcats followed that loss up with a perplexing 78-75 defeat at the hands of Furman, also-rans from the SoCon.
Wright’s problems only seemed to pile up alongside the losses. Redshirt sophomore Dylan Painter transferred to Delaware, while touted true freshman Jahvon Quinerly took a thinly veiled Instagram jab at the program after a painful loss to Penn. That loss cost Villanova the Philadelphia Big 5 title for the first time in six years.
But the Wildcats survived on a mantra that adorns shirts throughout the game day venue: All Wright, All Wright, All Wright.
Senior forward Eric Paschall was a late arrival to Wright’s system, transferring from Fordham in 2016. With his Villanova journey nearing an end, he knew the perfect party to credit his basketball transformation towards. The 2019 first-team All-Big East nominee labeled Wright “one of the greatest coaches, a Hall of Fame coach” after the latest Madison Square Garden party, according to Newsday’s Mark Herrmann.
“All credit to Coach Wright,” Paschall said. “I’m glad I transferred here and got to play for him. He did a lot for me. Without him, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.”
On Paschall’s side in the journey has been guard Phil Booth, who won the tournament’s MVP honor.
Booth might’ve been a forgotten man in Villanova’s never-ending parade of guards. Constantly overshadowed by names like Brunson and Ryan Arcidiacono, Booth enjoyed perhaps the grandest coming-out party in college basketball history, scoring a team-high 20 points in the 2016 national title win over North Carolina. After missing the subsequent 2017 season with an injury, Booth returned as a major player in the delayed title defense. Now, with one of the few champions left behind, Booth was the leader behind the Wildcats’ in-season resurgence. Villanova was 10-2 when Booth reached at least 20 points.
Under his watch, sophomore shooters Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels took big steps forward. The latter, for example, averaged 15.5 points over the final six games, including a career-high 29-point effort in a February win over Marquette that allowed Villanova top seeding in Manhattan.
In turn, Wright thanked his veterans for their contributions down the stretch, crediting them for the opportunity to raise the program’s fifth Big East trophy.
“This is thrilling. There’s more to this one, just watching these two, what they did,” Wright said, per Dan Greene of Sports Illustrated. “We had young coaches who did a great job, and these two were like coaches. I would really go to them and have meetings with them. ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to get the guys to do this. You have to teach them this. You have to be patient.”
“We have to keep teaching them, and they did it.”
Officially capping a 25-9 regular season, Villanova will begin their latest title defense in Hartford on Thursday. The sixth-seeded Wildcats will take on the St. Mary’s Gaels, champions of the West Coast Conference (7:20 p.m. ET, TBS).
Villanova’s 2018-19 fortunes, in another contrast from traditional elite programs, perhaps officially changed with a loss. Reeling from the disaster against the Quakers, they entered a late non-conference matchup against the then-top-ranked Kansas Jayhawks with a built-in excuse for further struggles. Instead, they buckled down, going blow-for-blow on the road with an elite opponent. They wound up falling 74-71, but momentum was built. The Wildcats won their next 11 games, setting themselves up for yet another New York title run.
Ironically enough, it was a game against Kansas that began this new norm for Villanova, an 83-62 victory on a snowy afternoon in 2005.
With yet another championship to take home to Philadelphia, one gained in a year of transition and de facto rebuilding, the young Wildcats, under Wright’s continued guidance, only appear to be keeping that state of affairs alive.