Whether or not Villanova makes it to the Final Four this season — and at this rate, nobody can rule that out — Jay Wright should have been there. It is there, during the climactic weekend of the college basketball season, that the Hall of Famers are announced. They should have made room for him among the icons.
Wright, an eligible candidate this year but not picked as a finalist, should get in eventually, and we will all have to ask for a recount if he doesn’t get in.
As Villanova big man Eric Paschall said after the Wildcats won their third consecutive Big East Tournament title Saturday, “All credit to Coach Wright.”
The guy deserves all the credit anyone can give. It is not just that he endured the loss of four NBA-caliber players from last year’s national championship squad and still won the conference championship. It is that, with his coaching and the success it keeps producing, he infuses life in the whole conference.
He does it with his own perfectly groomed, pocket-square, never-a-hair-out-of-place style. Even in a rebuilding year, every Villanova game is big. Villanova is a bigger deal because he is there, just as Hofstra is a bigger name because he coached there before heading home to Philadelphia 18 years ago.
“That man there . . . one of the greatest coaches, a Hall of Fame coach,” said Paschall, who came over from Fordham with the endorsement of his coach there, Tom Pecora, Wright’s assistant at Hofstra. “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.”
The same can be said for the Villanova program and the Big East in general. Let’s face it, this was not a banner year for the conference. Yet it had cachet because the Wildcats, winners of two of the previous three national titles, were in it. The title game Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden was an occasion, a sellout and a thriller, with large thanks to Villanova.
All credit to Wright for not writing this season off as a respite between the 2018 title and the arrival of a promising freshman class this coming fall. All credit to the coach for finding a way to make the team better and make it believe after a 73-46 drubbing on Nov. 14 from Michigan, the team it drubbed to win the championship in San Antonio last spring.
“It’s been a rocky season, but we do have two seniors back in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall,” Wright said on the court after his team’s 74-72 win over Seton Hall on Saturday. “They taught their teammates how to play Villanova basketball. They’ve led us, all of us, including our coaching staff. We lost our top two assistants. These two are really like coaches.”
This was not a beautiful game. Collin Gillespie tried a long bounce pass down the stretch that didn’t make it. The team threw the ball away under pressure toward the end.
“We tried to lose it,” Wright said. But the struggles on this day, in this season, just made it more exciting and rewarding. “I’ve been blessed to be on great teams, with great players,” Booth said.
Credit to Wright for always being genuinely excited about the Big East Tournament. It never has been just a tuneup for The Big Dance. “We really do cherish this environment,” he said.
Credit to Wright for bringing guys along, for teaching his upperclassmen how to teach the younger guys. “It’s really gratifying as a coach to see young people under pressure in a really tense environment keep a positive attitude and stick to our core values, stick together and just grind it out, man,” he said.
“If you can take that into life and handle everything in life, you’re going to be a pretty successful guy,” said Wright, a guy who has been successful enough to bring him to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame.