He’s been away from Hempstead for 15 years, but Villanova’s Jay Wright certainly has not forgotten his tenure at Hofstra and, in particular, the 1999-2000 season, when the first-time head coach — in his sixth season at the school — made the first of two consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a significant moment in his career, and not at all because it paved the way for a big-money job at Big East Villanova beginning in 2001. He’s gotten the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, but with the expectation to go deep into the tournament, he sounded as if the joy of just getting there has never really been duplicated since he left Hofstra.
“I never forget being in the situation, we played Oklahoma State and we were so excited, so thrilled that we just got there,’’ he said yesterday after the second- seeded Wildcats beat 15th-seeded UNC Asheville, 86-56, in a South Regional first-round game at Barclays Center. Villanova meets seventh-seeded Iowa in the second round tomorrow.
UNC Asheville hung around in the first half, trailing 28-24 with 3:16 left before Villanova (30-5) went on a 12-2 run to take a 40-26 halftime lead.
The 6-11 Daniel Ochefu led five Wildcats in double-digit scoring with 17 points. Dylan Smith had 14 points for UNC Asheville (22-12), a member of the Big South Conference. Sam Hughes, who had 10 points, said, “We’re happy to be here.’’
That’s a mantra Wright remembers well. “Just being there meant so much. I’ve never forgotten that,’’ said Wright, 54. Hofstra lost to Oklahoma State, 86-66, in 2000 and to UCLA, 61-48, in 2001. It did not dampen the moment.
It would at this level, though. Making the tournament is expected and so is advancing, something Villanova has had trouble doing. It was knocked out in its second game the previous two years. In the previous six years, the Wildcats made five NCAA appearances but were eliminated in the first or second round.
Wright sounded as if he envies Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell, who experienced the exhilaration described by Wright as the Seawolves made their first tourney appearance. But before that, Pikiell had to take some heat about falling short.
“If you get one monkey off your back, there’s going to be a new one,’’ Wright said. “If we don’t advance here, it’s just going to get bigger. If we do advance, it’s going to start being, ‘You haven’t been to the Final Four since ’09.’ It’s really part of what you get paid for, and I accept that. They pay you a lot of money, they expect big results. And if you don’t get them, you’re going to hear it. It’s really what the job is.’’
In 1989, Wright attended a dinner with Jim Valvano, who coached Iona before winning the 1983 NCAA title with North Carolina State, and Rollie Massimino, Wright’s mentor in the coaching business, who passed through Stony Brook on the way to Villanova and a national title in 1985. The operative line of the evening for Wright was Valvano’s “don’t mess with happy,” which referenced the contentment found in the lower echelons of coaching compared to the never-ending demands of the big time.
To that end, Wright has found a happy he can tolerate. “I know I have to answer to this,’’ he said of postseason expectations, “but I still know there’s a great value in a university getting to the tournament every year and a program getting to the tournament every year. I know it’s not enough for some people. But I never forget that these seniors in our program have been to the NCAA Tournament every year. There’s a great value to that. Would we like to go further, yes. But never forget the value of getting there.’’