The question was about respect. What would it mean in terms of respect for Villanova basketball if the Wildcats upset blue-blooded ACC power North Carolina on Monday night at NRG Stadium?
Jay Wright understood the implication that, in the larger national picture, Villanova is regarded as a quaint Catholic school with an interesting basketball history. But not on a level with the Dukes, Kentuckys, Michigan States and Carolinas of the college world.
“We want to win it bad,” Wright said Sunday. Then he added the caveat: “I don’t think it’s going to change our program that much. I think our program’s respected for what it is.”
It was the perfect answer that said Villanova knows itself, understands the particular identity it has forged and is happy to be Villanova. That is the basis of the unique culture Wright has built during the past 15 years since leaving Hofstra.
Wright didn’t need the Wildcats’ thrilling 77-74 victory over North Carolina to validate his work, but it certainly was a reflection of all he stands for. Wright called timeout with 4.7 seconds left in a tie game and called a play that Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins executed perfectly, ending with Jenkins’ buzzer-beating three-pointer for the title.
Even as the Wildcats failed to reach the Sweet 16 every year since their last Final Four in 2009, Wright stuck to his model. He didn’t dive into the one-and-done pool in search of a quick fix. He recruited top athletes, but not the name-brand types who turn up regularly at the national powers. He recruited guys who fit Villanova as Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu, Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, the starting five, do.
“In our culture at Villanova University, being humble is very important,” Wright said. “If you’re not humble, it’s hard to be coached. If you can’t be coached, it’s hard to get better. These are really humble guys coming in, and that’s why this team has fit our model best.”
That doesn’t mean the Wildcats haven’t proved they can stand across from any team and compete on equal footing. Their man-to- man defense can’t easily be explained because the switching help schemes are so complex and sometimes involve unconventional matchups, such as sending the 6-11 Ochefu out to guard a perimeter player.
Arcidiacono said the Wildcats would welcome a one-and-done-caliber player, but he said that type of talent might have trouble fitting in.
“To even learn how to play Villanova basketball, it’s going to take more than one year,” he said. “It takes a year or so to get to know how to play hard, deal with all the little things and focus on everyone else instead of yourself.”
That defines the tenacity Villanova showed in what really was a dominant run to the title game, winning by an average of 24 points. As a side benefit, the Wildcats have improved the profile of the new Big East in its third season since parting with the football schools and returning to its basketball-only roots. Villanova remained high in the national rankings and now has planted the conference flag at the top of the mountain.
“We’re the new league,” Wright said. “It’s important that we do this, our league does this, and that we continue to do this for our league as much as for our school.”
Wright’s renewed success could bring overtures from bigger schools, maybe even an NBA team, and he admits he’s been tempted to leave “a couple of times.” But he also knows he fits best in the culture he has created at Villanova.
Quoting the late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, Wright said, “ ‘Don’t mess with happy.’ That’s kind of the way we look at it.”
Wright couldn’t have been happier than Monday night.