BUFFALO - When Villanova coach Jay Wright rode the bus to his team's game Friday, he saw more than the gray sky, the snow and the old buildings downtown. He saw a great memory, from having taken in those same sights on his first ride to an NCAA game as a head coach.
"It was the exact same day," Wright said, thinking back to this week in 2000, when he led Hofstra into the same building for the exact same kind of game. "We got hammered in this building by Oklahoma State, [coach] Eddie Sutton, Doug Gottlieb of all people."
Back then, Hofstra was the little guy, trying vainly to hang in against a No. 3 seed and losing by 20. This past Thursday night, with Gottlieb among the analysts on CBS, Wright rolled in with his second-seeded Wildcats and beat Milwaukee by 20.
For Wright, whose team advanced to play Connecticut in the late game last night, it was more than deja vu. It was a reminder that a coach can come back to the NCAA Tournament many times, but a player might make it only once. It also was proof that, when it's your first time, even an apparent nightmare can become a great memory.
"We had Speedy Claxton at Hofstra and he was a great guard," Wright said Friday, referring to the college star who went on to play in the NBA and now is back at Hofstra as an assistant coach. "They were big and physical. They had the two-guard [Desmond Mason] that went to the NBA, too."
Hofstra never did have a creditable streak, as Milwaukee did Thursday. Wright remembered that Claxton came off a screen and severely injured a finger. "He was like this, his finger was like that," the coach said, pointing in two different directions, "and I was like, 'Oh, we're in trouble. We're dead now.' "
Claxton did return and scored 20 points, not nearly enough to overcome Oklahoma State's physical superiority and Hofstra's stifling stage fright (it was 43-26 at halftime). Still, it was all good, especially for a coach who was just learning.
"That first time, as a coach, you didn't know what you were doing. They have a [coaches] meeting. John Chaney was here, Bobby Knight, Eddie Sutton, and you're sitting in the meeting like, 'Whoa.' I was intimidated before we even got on the court."
That St. Patrick's Day night sure was an eventful one. It turned out to be Knight's last game as Indiana coach. He lost badly to Pepperdine and was not nearly as sanguine as the first-timer.
"It was an amazing night for me," Wright said this past week. "We got hammered, and we got hammered after the game because we were so happy to be here."
It is all different now that he is at a school with much bigger ambitions. "I've been fortunate and blessed with a lot of good players at Villanova, that I got to go to a Sweet 16, to a Final Four," he said. "Now you're thinking, 'OK, I've been to these meetings. We've got to make sure the kids' heads are right. I want these kids to experience this.' "
His view now at the start of the tournament is from the other side of a lopsided seeding matchup. "I wouldn't have been happy if we lost," he said. "I would not have been celebrating after that game."