College Basketball Nation: Jay Wright

Editor's note: Over the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 19: Villanova's Jay Wright. On Wednesday, we release No. 18.

On Monday, Thad Matta's spot at No. 20 came with another reminder of the guidelines voters were provided in this ranking system, and the importance of recent results in the ESPN Forecast panel's voting. In short, it was impossible to look at Matta's spot and not think he would have been much higher -- maybe even top 10 -- if not for Ohio State's subpar-for-him 2013-14 season.

Jay Wright is a similar case, but in the exact opposite way. For Wright, 2013-14 was all about redemption.

Last December, in the midst of Villanova's impressive 11-0 start, Wright sat down with ESPN's Dana O'Neil for what she called "a fascinating and introspective conversation, offering a rarely seen glimpse of the complications of success and the lessons of failure." Wright had seen both: After landing the Wildcats job as a hungry up-and-comer at Hofstra, Wright launched to textbook success at Villanova. By the fourth year of his rebuild, the Wildcats were in the Sweet Sixteen. A year later, they won a share of a loaded Big East and got to the Elite Eight. From there, Wright's work was steady: The Wildcats won in their league, they recruited good classes, they always went to the tournament. Rinse, repeat.

But then things got weird.

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Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 19: Villanova's Jay Wright. On Wednesday, we release No. 18.

There are people who are exactly who you think they are.

And then there is Jay Wright.

[+] EnlargeVillanova Wildcats
Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY SportsJay Wright has used his teams' strengths to make Villanova a relevant Big East power in his 12 years in Philadelphia.
He is exactly what you don’t think he is.

The expensive suits with the perfectly matched pocket squares imply a man who dresses to impress, who cares deeply about how he is viewed and thought of.

The truth about Jay Wright? He doesn’t give a fig about any of that.

There are about 15 guys he’d like to impress, and they all gather at the Davis Center on the Villanova campus for practice each season.

Outside of that, he just doesn’t care that much.

“The perception is he’s the handsome guy that wears the $5,000 suits,’’ said Patrick Chambers, the coach at Penn State who spent five years as Wright’s assistant coach at Villanova. “But so many people are out there trying to impress other coaches with how smart they are and what they do. Jay isn’t into any of that. He’s so comfortable in his own skin.’’

Some of that comes with time. Wright has been at this head-coaching gig now for 19 years, the last 12 at Villanova. He knows the game, as in basketball, and he knows The Game, as in the business of basketball.

But so much of his talent is innate. In his first year at Villanova, he attracted a highly skilled recruiting class and most everyone expected immediate results. Immediate instead took a backseat to two painful years in the NIT. Yet when everyone -- including those who now count themselves as die-hard, lifelong fans -- wanted Wright out for lack of production, he didn’t blink.

I covered the Wildcats then for the Philadelphia Daily News. We went out to breakfast to start the season and I mentioned that he was on the hot seat.

His response?

“I deserve to be,’’ with a chuckle.

That year Villanova went to the Sweet 16.

“He has such confidence in what he does,’’ Chambers said. “A lot of people will panic and say maybe it’s time to try something different. That’s not Jay. He stays true to himself and what he believes in.’’

Quietly, Wright’s sense of purpose has led to a pretty nice resume. In 19 years as a head coach at Hofstra and Villanova, he’s reached 10 NCAA tournaments; at Nova he’s eight for 12, including the 2009 Final Four.

With Wright at the helm, Villanova has managed to stay relevant despite a Catholic-school budget amid the world of football-greased pockets. The university’s name always will be synonymous with an improbable title run in 1985, but thanks to Wright, Villanova is more than a one-trick pony etched in the history books.

“I don’t think he gets enough credit as an X-and-O coach,’’ Chambers said. “He’s a genius because he tailors everything to the team he has. When he had Randy Foye and all those guys, they played four guards and won. When he had Dante Cunningham, he made him the focal point and won, but nobody talks about that.’’

Probably because Wright doesn’t talk about it.

You’d have an easier time convincing him to wear off-the-rack Target than getting him to talk about himself (there's a reason I called Chambers for this blog).

His job now is getting harder, not easier. Villanova and its Catholic-school brethren did the wise and prudent thing by joining forces to form the new Big East, but with an autonomy vote coming down the pike and threats of a Division IV, it’s hard to know what will happen next.

Consequently, Wright’s name keeps surfacing on coaching vacancy rumor lists -- most notably, and strangely, at Missouri. No doubt there are places where he could make more money and enjoy more notoriety, but five years ago he said no thanks to Kentucky. The idea of the fish bowl of that job didn’t interest him then, nor does the lure of such a spotlight attract him now.

“I love Nova,’’ Wright said via text to squash the Missouri rumors. “I’m not going anywhere.’’

Which, of course, is the exact opposite of what you might think he’d say.

NEW YORK -- New Big East, same old Madness.

Less than 24 hours into the 2014 Big East tournament, we’ve already had two stunning upsets and lost the top seed.

On Wednesday night, Georgetown was defeated by DePaul for the first time in 20 years. On Thursday afternoon, No. 3-ranked Villanova fell to Seton Hall 64-63 on a buzzer-beater by sophomore guard Sterling Gibbs.

For Seton Hall, it’s the first win in school history against a team ranked in the top three in the Associated Press poll. The Pirates had been 0-30 against such teams.

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AP Photo/Seth WenigSeton Hall guard Sterling Gibbs proved the new Big East still has the same old flair for the dramatic with his game-winning shot against Villanova.
“It was a great college basketball game,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “They played better. They made the plays at the end.”

Seton Hall had just 15 hours to rest and prepare for Villanova following its 51-50 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.

Perhaps the short turnaround helped. Villanova trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half before scoring the final six to make it 34-26 at intermission. The Wildcats shot 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) and missed seven free throws in the first half.

A 16-0 Villanova run fueled by several open-court steals and scores put the Wildcats back in front with just more than eight minutes remaining. But the Pirates did not fold. The game came down to the final minute, when the lead changed hands four times.

Josh Hart's layup with 41 seconds to play put Villanova up 61-59. Freshman Jaren Sina buried a 3-pointer from the corner 20 seconds later to give Seton Hall a 62-61 lead.

Darrun Hilliard's floater in the lane rolled in with 11 seconds left, pushing the Wildcats back ahead 63-62. And then Gibbs hit the biggest shot of them all -- a step-back jumper from the top of the key as time expired.

“It was supposed to get in my hands, and I was supposed to create a shot for my teammates or create a shot for myself,” Gibbs said. “I just stepped back and hit the jumper.”

Seton Hall finished the regular season in eighth place in the 10-team Big East but has played nine games decided by a single point this season, going 4-5. The Pirates also have two three-point losses, one in overtime and the other in double overtime.

“One of the referees told me the other night, he said he’s never seen a team go through what we’ve gone through and still come back and play hard every night,” said Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. “I just think it’s the character of these guys.”

The new Big East now has its first signature moment, and Seton Hall has a berth in the Big East tourney semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Pirates will play either No. 4 seed Providence or No. 5 seed St. John’s on Friday.

Seton Hall was swept by St. John's in the regular season, but both losses were by -- you guessed it! -- one point. The Pirates split with the Friars, winning by one in double overtime and then losing by five.

“I really thought if we could get past Butler, we could beat anybody,” Willard said. “I was really scared about getting past Butler. It’s a tough matchup for us. They defend really well on us, and I thought if we could get past them, we could get some momentum and just keep going.”

Villanova, whose three previous losses this season came against ranked teams Syracuse and Creighton (twice), is still projected to be a No. 1 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi -- as of now. But that could change as the rest of Championship Week unfolds.

“This was not about 1-seeds, 2-seeds,” Wright said. “This was about we wanted to come to Madison Square Garden and win the Big East tournament. Winning the Big East tournament would mean much more to us than a 1-seed.

“This is a great tournament. We want to be here until Saturday. I think we’re more disappointed about that. The NCAA tournament seedings? My belief is 1, 2, 3 -- it doesn’t matter that much. You’re going to play great teams.”

We couldn’t boil down the list. That was the amazing thing.

Every year, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association board members and district representatives get together on a conference call to boil down the candidates for player of the year, freshman of the year and coach of the year. Usually it’s not terribly complicated. This season it was.

Not for the first two, but for the third. There were so many choices, we were worried we’d leave someone off.

Which got me to thinking, what would coaches say? Who among their peers would they deem the most worthy?

So I decided to ask. I polled 22 different coaches -- from big conferences and small, West Coast, East Coast, Midwest and South -- and asked them (anonymously so they wouldn't feel strange) to name their national coach of the year and why he earned their vote.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsGregg Marshall has led the Shockers to a flawless record heading into the NCAA tournament despite a target on Wichita State's back.
No surprise, there wasn’t a consensus.

A majority, yes, but not a consensus.

Of the 22 people polled, 11 said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, three picked Florida's Billy Donovan and two chose Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, while Creighton's Greg McDermott, Virginia's Tony Bennett, Villanova's Jay Wright, SMU's Larry Brown, Kansas' Bill Self and Michigan's John Beilein received one vote apiece.

Marshall got the edge for logical reasons. The head coach of the undefeated Shockers has already made history, leading his team not only to the NCAA's first undefeated regular season in 10 years, but also to a 34-0 record and the Missouri Valley regular-season and conference tournament titles.

"They simply haven’t made a mistake," one coach said of Marshall’s Wichita State team.

Added another: "Going undefeated is next to impossible. Going undefeated after a Final Four appearance is beyond impossible because of the target you have to wear into every game."

Donovan earned the respect of his peers for his ability to overcome suspensions and injuries yet still lead his Florida team to 23 consecutive wins, the first 18-0 conference record in SEC history, an SEC regular-season title and just two losses.

"If the guys weren’t hurt or out against Wisconsin, he could have one loss," one coach said of the Gators’ first loss, in which both Dorian Finney-Smith and Scottie Wilbekin did not play. "And he just does his job. That’s it."

Cronin, the only other multiple-vote-getter, earned props for Cincinnati’s relentless style. The Bearcats, picked to finish fourth in the inaugural season of the American Athletic Conference, instead shared the league title with Louisville.

"He’s just done a heckuva job with his team," one coach said. "They play the best defense and he’s gotten so much out of those guys."

Even though McDermott, Self, Wright, Bennett, Brown and Beilein each received just one vote, plenty of coaches mentioned them while whittling down their choices to a single name.

The stakes were raised this year for Creighton with the Bluejays' move to the Big East, yet thanks to McDermott and in no small part to his son, Doug, not much has changed. Creighton finished second in the league.

"I understand he has the best player in the country, but still, to move up a league, that’s impressive," one coach said of McDermott.

In the expanded and ever-more-difficult ACC, Bennett led Virginia to its first conference regular-season title since 1981, losing just two league games in the process.

"Sixteen-and-one and 13 in a row in the ACC is pretty impressive," the one coach who voted for Bennett said before the Cavaliers closed the regular season with a 75-69 overtime loss to Maryland to end that streak.

[+] EnlargeLarry Brown
AP Photo/Fred BeckhamLarry Brown has earned the respect of his peers for turning things around so quickly at SMU.
Villanova, another regular-season conference winner, surprised virtually everyone in the country by not only winning the Big East but racking up a 28-3 record. Wright and his team could be in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"This is an example of how a team with capable college players executing a cohesive brand of basketball can achieve at a very high level," Wright’s voter said. "Jay has masterfully orchestrated this championship team, pushing all the right buttons."

And speaking of unexpected, there is SMU. Larry Brown promised big changes when the school hired him two years ago. No one expected such dramatic improvement so quickly.

"No one else could have done what LB has done at SMU," Brown’s endorser said.

Self, meanwhile, essentially has rebuilt his roster with little change in results. Kansas won yet another Big 12 title, the Jayhawks' 10th in a row despite a roster heavily reliant on freshmen.

"He started brand new and here he is. That’s pretty amazing," another coach said.

Finally, Beilein is almost a combo of Self and Donovan. He led the Wolverines to a Big Ten regular-season title despite losing the player of the year (Trey Burke) and Tim Hardaway Jr. from last year’s national championship runner-up team and Mitch McGary for the better part of this season due to injury.

"At the end of the day, it’s not all just about toughness," one of Beilein's peers said. “We talk about that too much. It’s about execution, and he’s the best execution coach in the game."

Villanova back to the way it was

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There was a time, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when the Villanova Wildcats were one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Through Jan. 18, two opponents scored more than a point per trip in any game against the Wildcats. The first was Delaware in a tight win on Nov. 22, just before Villanova handled Kansas and Iowa on back-to-back nights in the Bahamas. The second was Syracuse, which still hasn’t lost a game. Jay Wright’s team ranked among the top three or four defenses in the country; it pressured offenses to the 3-point line and defended the perimeter with nearly equal enthusiasm; it was consummate. When the Jan. 19 Associated Press poll was unveiled, Villanova was deservedly ranked No. 4 in the country.

And then Creighton happened.

The Bluejays’ 96-68 master class -- the best win in Creighton history and possibly the best offensive performance of the past decade -- didn’t merely produce a bunch of eye-popping, retweetable statistics. It exploded Villanova’s defense. Without breaking a sweat, Ethan Wragge and Doug McDermott and everyone else in a royal blue uniform did everything the Wildcats are designed to stop, over and over again, on Villanova’s home floor.

By the middle of the second half, when it became clear Creighton wouldn’t stop, it was worth wondering whether Wright’s team had just suffered the kind comprehensive emotional battering Michael Jordan made famous. The kind old NBA veterans still whisper about, the kind that ruins a season.

Seven days later, Villanova is doing just fine, thanks.

[+] EnlargeVillanova
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThings seem back to normal for Darrun Hilliard and Villanova after beating Georgetown Monday, the second straight road victory for the Wildcats.
Monday night’s 65-60 win at Georgetown was a welcome return to form for the Wildcats -- a return to weak-side rotations and drawn charges, to interior challenges and forced turnovers, to the kind of adaptable, pressuring defense that earned them that No. 4 ranking in the first place.

“That was old-school Big East basketball,” Wright said. “That was fun.”

The Wildcats won despite shooting just 40 percent from the field, and 31.8 percent from 3-point range, in large part because they forced the action on the offensive end enough to shoot 28 free throws. It was offense-as-erosion, and nearly as slow.

Meanwhile, Georgetown couldn’t crack Villanova’s defense, turning the ball over 18 times and getting just nine free throws for their trouble. And that puzzled John Thompson III.

"We're getting the ball into the paint, we're getting penetration, we're getting drives, we're getting the ball down low, but fouls aren't being called," Thompson said. "I'm not saying we're being fouled and they're not called. I don't know, but you look at that stat right away and you see we shot nine foul shots they shoot 28, so we've got to figure out how to get fouled.

“Every game seems to be called differently. One could say that opposite ends of court are called differently."

The officials may have had a rough night at the office, and Georgetown’s offense has hardly set the world alight -- Bluejays 2.0 it is not. But credit the Wildcats, too. Villanova’s ability to combine maximum turnovers and minimal fouls made every Hoyas mini-run -- and it felt like there were dozens -- ultimately futile. After an 8-0 run to start the game, Thompson’s team led just once.

One decisive late play summed up the general tenor: Down 61-58 with 34 seconds remaining, Georgetown guard Markel Starks -- who had 20 points and six assists and was the Hoyas’ only effective offensive player -- drove baseline. As he elevated to swing a pass to an open teammate in the opposite corner, he crashed into a rotating Wildcats defender who had already anticipated the charge.

It was a sort of inverse scenario from just two days prior. On Saturday, Tony Chennault's would-be game-winner at Marquette was waved off at the last second. But Wright’s team managed to pull out a 94-85 OT win anyway -- a game they won by pouring wave after wave of points on the board. Neither game was an aesthetic wonder, Wright admitted, but even he was impressed to come away from the week 2-0.

“[Our guys] really have great character and mental toughness,” Wright said. “They really do. There’s a lot of challenges, you know? You win a couple games, you get things going good, and then you get smacked in the face, you get knocked down. How you respond is important.

“Since that game we’ve been on the road two games back to back against two very good teams. We haven’t been pretty in either one of them, but we’ve found a way.”

That game. Whether intentional or not, Wright avoided mentioning Creighton by name. Under different circumstances, the omission could be read as denial. After two gutty bounce-back road victories, it reads more like acceptance. The Wildcats have moved on, and they seem to be doing just fine.

In October, the Big East introduced its new makeup to the college basketball world during an elegant media day at Chelsea Piers in New York City. The event had all the accoutrements expected from a league that wanted to be taken seriously from the moment of its inception.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsJay Wright's Wildcats were impressive in wins over Kansas and Iowa at the Battle 4 Atlantis.
There were cooks and servers dressed in neat uniforms as they tended to athletes, coaches and journalists. There were great views of the city and impressive images of ships meandering along the Hudson River.

Inside, the media converged upon the tables that hosted Buzz Williams, Doug McDermott, John Thompson III and Steve Lavin.

Meanwhile, Jay Wright sat across the room, answering a series of questions from a smattering of reporters. At times, his players took out their smartphones to deal with their boredom.

Few seemed anxious to talk to them.

Villanova was not the story at Big East media day. It wasn’t even the sidebar.

But now, the Wildcats are the fairy tale.

In one weekend at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, everything changed for Wright’s program.

Villanova was David when it beat No. 2 Kansas 63-59 on Friday night. By the end of its 88-83 come-from-behind overtime victory over Iowa on Saturday, it looked like the Goliath of the Big East.

Ryan Arcidiacono played cold-blooded basketball in back-to-back nights. The sophomore point guard hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Villanova’s win over Kansas on Friday, and he made a pair of critical buckets in the final minutes of regulation against the Hawkeyes the following day.

James Bell, the tourney MVP, registered 20 points against the Hawkeyes. With JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard, Dylan Ennis, Josh Hart and Arcidiacono, the Wildcats have a sturdy, versatile roster.

They roared back from a 15-point deficit against the Hawkeyes. They held the Jayhawks to a season-low 59 points.

Villanova is ranked sixth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. The Wildcats are ranked 22nd in defensive turnover percentage.

In a 24-hour stretch over the weekend, the Wildcats proved that they can rumble in a shootout or apply the vice to one of America’s most efficient offenses when necessary.

Most of the Big East can’t say the same right now.

Georgetown is on a three-game winning streak, which includes an upset of VCU.

But Butler suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Oklahoma State and LSU in the Old Spice Classic. Meanwhile, Greg McDermott needs to call John Calipari and orchestrate a trade for Willie Cauley-Stein after post players for San Diego State and George Washington helped their respective squads toss Creighton out of the Top 25 with a pair of upsets in the Wooden Legacy. Marquette couldn’t topple the Aztecs in the same tourney on Sunday night, either.

Providence won’t see many teams that rival the Kentucky squad that defeated it by 14 points on Sunday, but the Friars’ offense (114th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com) should be a concern.

Villanova, however, is undefeated. Unblemished.

The Wildcats were feisty as they grabbed an NCAA tournament bid a year ago. But their dominance in the Battle 4 Atlantis illuminated the idea that they might be capable of much more this season, including a Big East title.

A lot changed for Villanova and the Big East over the weekend.

I hope Wright is ready for the interview requests that will pour into his office this week.

It’s a fitting change since the Wildcats are the Big East’s headliner now.

You Gotta See This: Big East

October, 9, 2013
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Doug McDermottDave Weaver/USA TODAY SportsDoug McDermott and Creighton are shooting for a big debut year in the Big East.

It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: The new Big East contains multitudes.

In March, at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on Day 3 of my Regional Road Trip, which still makes me tired every time I think about it, I ran into Bradley Kalscheur. It was the middle of the Marquette-Syracuse East Regional Final, and I was looking for interesting fans to talk to -- I wanted to take their temperature on the fresh drama that would carve out a new Big East from the old, realignment-ravaged (and renamed) American.

Kalscheur, a Milwaukee attorney, was one of the first people I noticed -- mostly because he was wearing an amazing sweatshirt. During a timeout, we got to talking, and I asked him for his thoughts on the new league. I assumed he would be sad. I assumed wrong.

"[Founder] Dave Gavitt would smile on the new league," Kalscheur said. "It isn't going away. It's carrying on with the original intent."

In 2013-14, we get to officially test that theory.

To me, that's the most interesting thing about the new 2013-14 Big East. Yes, there are loads of individual storylines. There's Creighton making the leap from the Missouri Valley. There's Creighton star Doug McDermott — who has a chance to become the first three-time All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale — testing his limits every single night. There's Butler, which was a Horizon League member just two seasons ago. There's its new coach, Brandon Miller, replacing the new head coach of the Boston Celtics, charged with turning all the success and goodwill of his predecessor's tenure into a lasting spot among college basketball's elite.

There's Xavier, recovering from the rare "down" year, hoping guard Semaj Christon blossoms into a star. There's Georgetown without Otto Porter (and Greg Whittington) and St. John's still-talented-and-still-frustrating group and Jay Wright pushing Villanova back into the light and the impressive ongoing success Buzz Williams is having at Marquette. There are many more, too; this post can't be 3,000 words.

But the biggest -- certainly the unifying -- story is what all of those disparate parts create in unison. What is the Big East, exactly? It's nothing like a mid-major, obviously. Is it a power league? Can you even have a "power" league without football? Has the landscape simply changed too much? In a year's time, how will we regard the first season of the new Big East?

When the "Catholic 7" staged its insurrection, walked away with the Big East name, and snapped up Butler, Creighton and Xavier, college basketball fans roundly applauded, and why not? We agree with Kalscheur: This is what the Big East should be. But Dave Gavitt's Big East was created in a different time. Is the great-basketball, no-football model still viable anymore? Can you really thread that needle? What if, in a year, all of these questions are silly?

That's precisely the point. We're about to find out.


1. Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti's decision to keep Mike Rice even after the coach's suspension and $50,000 fine made no sense. The two years remaining on Rice's contract -- with one year in the soon-to-be-named conference before entering the Big Ten in 2014 -- was another sign. No one within the industry expected Rice to be coaching in the Big Ten. So the question that remains unanswered is why did Pernetti keep Rice on when the inevitable was going to happen in a year? The release of the tapes by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" showed that the decision to simply suspend and fine was a mistake. Now Rice has no shot to coach in the Big Ten, or to recruit for next season. Rutgers will have to cut him loose -- and can do so for cause. When this happens, because it's incredibly difficult to see this being an "if" scenario, Rutgers must look to someone who either has strong ties to the university (like Eddie Jordan), has a clean image and/or can coach at the highest level in the Big Ten (like Jay Wright or Al Skinner). There are others out there, but Rutgers will need to find someone who has high character and can regain the respect the program needs before it enters the Big Ten. One side note: I remember talking to Rice when he came back from the suspension and he said he was going to change the way he delivered his message -- though not the intensity of how he would express himself. But it was clearly too late, since these videos had already been recorded.

2. Former UCLA coach Ben Howland would seem to be another possible candidate for Rutgers. But it's unclear what Howland will do. He said Tuesday that he will sit the year out, attend practices, get healthier and then come back. Howland will be in demand. He went to three Final Fours. He coached the Bruins to the regular-season Pac-12 title. Tubby Smith was able to land at Texas Tech within 10 days of being fired at Minnesota.

3. New Mexico should be applauded for hiring Craig Neal to replace Steve Alford. This wasn't a rushed decision. AD Paul Krebs had plenty of time to evaluate Neal as he coached with Alford the past six seasons. Neal is ready for this challenge. The pool of coaches who would actually leave their current situations isn't strong right now. Neal has bought into the New Mexico program, and it was crucial to keep the momentum going from the past four seasons. The Lobos couldn't afford to find themselves in startup mode again.

UNC's Williams gets 700th career win

March, 22, 2013
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams picked up his 700th career victory when North Carolina defeated Villanova 78-71 at the Sprint Center on Friday. But after the game, Williams said he was equally as proud of another number.

Twenty-five.

That’s how many wins Williams’ current crop of Tar Heels has achieved during what some would call a transition year. Considering UNC had four players selected in the top 17 of last summer’s NBA draft, the coaching job Williams has done in 2012-13 is one of the more impressive of his career.

Friday’s victory propelled UNC to a third-round NCAA tournament game against either Kansas or Western Kentucky. That hardly seemed like a possibility three months ago, when the Tar Heels were manhandled by a struggling Texas team that a few weeks earlier had lost to Division II Chaminade.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesIn guiding North Carolina to the round of 32, Roy Williams picked up his 700th career coaching win.
“It was terrible,” guard Dexter Strickland said about the loss. “We didn’t have any experience. We didn’t know how to play with each other yet. We didn’t know the level of intensity we needed to play with as a team. We were just trying to find ourselves.”

Strickland paused.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” he said.

Indeed, North Carolina finished third in the ACC with a 12-6 record. During Friday’s first half, the eighth-seeded Tar Heels looked capable of making one of the more unlikely Final Four runs in school history.

Williams’ squad led by 20 points in the first half. The basket must’ve looked like hula-hoop to the Tar Heels, who shot 50 percent before the break.

North Carolina, however, became complacent in the second half and allowed the ninth-seeded Wildcats to take a 45-44 lead.

“We thought we were good enough to win this game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

The Wildcats (20-14) almost did, keeping it close until the waning minutes, when some timely 3-point shooting by Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Marcus Paige helped North Carolina to victory. The Tar Heels closed out the win by making their last seven field goal attempts.

“There were a few moments, to say the least, when we were really ugly,” Williams said. “I loved the mental toughness of our team in the last eight or nine minutes.”

Williams deserves credit for developing that toughness. Hairston, Bullock and James Michael McAdoo are NBA-caliber players, but certainly not at the level -- at least not yet -- of some of the lottery picks of UNC’s past. This team has needed more molding and grooming and coaching than recent Tar Heel squads.

That’s why, in some ways, win No. 25 (against 10 losses) felt just as fulfilling to Williams as victory No. 700.

“I’m human,” Williams said. “I wanted to get 700. I’d like to get 800, 900, 1,000, 1,500 ... but I know that’s not going to happen.

“My focus was not on that, it really wasn’t. I was trying to get No. 25 and have this team stay and play in another game.”
NEW YORK -- The Big Apple didn’t get to see its hometown team play in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday night.

Louisville versus Villanova was a pretty darn good consolation prize.

No, the game wasn’t a nailbiter. In fact, it was all but over midway through the second half. But a packed house at Madison Square Garden got to watch a national championship contender at the absolute peak of its powers.

Villanova, which took out St. John’s 24 hours earlier to earn a spot in the quarters and had beaten Louisville in late January, was no match for Rick Pitino’s club this night, falling 74-55.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Russ Smith
Al Bello/Getty ImagesLouisville's Russ Smith scored 21 of his 28 points against Villanova after halftime.
“We lost last time around for three reasons,” Pitino said. “We missed free throws, didn’t guard the 3-point line, and didn’t cause enough havoc. Tonight we did all three.”

“Havoc” doesn’t nearly do it justice. Louisville led by only nine at the half, 30-21, but it felt like a lot more. That’s what happens when you watch a team commit 18 turnovers in just 20 minutes.

“I think we were just very intense,” Pitino said. “We were really quick. We’re fast.”

Villanova committed only seven more turnovers in the second half. But the Cardinals stepped it up at the other end. After shooting just 35.7 percent (10-for-28) before the break, the Cardinals made 54.2 percent (13-for-24) in the second half -- led by senior guard Russ Smith, who poured in 21 of his game-high 28 points after intermission.

“Their guards completely dominated the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The game was allowed to be played very physical. It was very fair. We just did not respond to the physical play. That’s what happens -- you turn the ball over like that.”

Smith, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., dedicated his performance to his former high school coach at Archbishop Molloy, the legendary Jack Curran, whose death at the age of 82 was announced earlier in the day.

Smith admitted shedding tears when he heard the news. “It was almost heartbreaking to think about it,” Smith said. “I just wanted to win and do anything I could to win.”

Pitino, whose team was already second in the country in steals per game, loved the forced turnover total. But he loved another stat even more: 58 defensive deflections, according to Louisville’s calculations. That’s the most a Pitino-coached team has ever collected in a single game, even during his stints in the NBA.

“It was an incredible thing to witness,” Pitino said.

Last March, Louisville arrived in New York in a slump, losing four of six to end the regular season. But they ended up winning this tournament as the No. 7 seed, and going all the way to the Final Four.

This year, the Cardinals got a head-start. They’ve now won eight games in a row, a streak that began in mid-February.

Villanova had probably already done enough to sneak into the NCAA tournament field as an at-large. But Louisville is shooting for a No. 1 seed.

“This team could win a national championship,” Wright said, of Louisville.

So if New Yorkers are looking for a team to root for in the Big Dance next week -- besides Cinderellas Iona and LIU Brooklyn -- Louisville is a prime candidate.

After all, Pitino is a New York City native and one-time coach of the Knicks. And Smith, a first-team All-Big East performer, is certainly doing his hometown proud.

But as for the rest of the country? Beware.

The Cardinals are picking up some serious steam. You don't want to see them on your side of the bracket.
PHILADELPHIA -- Jay Wright was sitting at J.D. McGillicuddy’s doing his radio show Monday night when the Villanova coach glanced up at one of the television screens in the restaurant.

He looked right in time to see the most popular graphic of the season -- Joe Lunardi’s updated Bracketology information.

"It said we were in," Wright said. "I was like, ‘We’re in? Really?'"

That was then.

This is now.

It’s time to stop worrying about popping bubbles and instead pop the champagne on the Main Line.

Villanova is in the NCAA tournament.

No, I am not Mike Bobinski, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I feel fairly confident speaking on behalf of the NCAA tournament selection committee chair on this one.

Barring something apocalyptic (and if the apocalypse can happen in any college basketball season, I suppose it would be this one), Villanova is in the NCAA tournament.

How could it be otherwise for the Wildcats?

Villanova beat Georgetown on Wednesday night 67-57, stopping one of the hottest teams in the country in its tracks. Depending on your point of view, Villanova may or may not have gotten a little assistance from a favorable whistle (42 free throws attempted to eight) -- "I’ll keep my issues to myself," Hoyas coach John Thompson III said when asked -- but the Wildcats won, and at this time of year, that’s all that matters.

[+] EnlargeJayVaughn Pinkston
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsJayVaughn Pinkston's game-high 20 points led Villanova to its third win over a top-five team.
The victory over the No. 5 Hoyas gives Villanova three W's against top-five teams and makes it 4-1 against teams in the Top 25. The Wildcats finish the regular season 10-8 in the Big East, 19-12 overall.

That is an NCAA tournament résumé.

Kentucky, Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Alabama, the crop of first-four-out teams that would be chasing the Wildcats, can’t say that. Of that quartet, in fact, none has a single win against a team with an RPI of 25 or better.

"You know what, I would think so," Wright said with surprising candor when asked if he thought Villanova was in. "… We’ve got 10 wins in this league and some of those wins are high-caliber wins. Even the losses, like Providence, that’s supposed to be a bad loss, but they’re going to win 10 games in this league so that’s not a bad loss. I like where we are right now. I think we’re in a good spot."

Yes, there are blemishes, but let he among the bubble dwellers who does not have a blemish cast the first stone.

To Villanova’s Columbia loss, Virginia offers Boston College and losses to three teams from the dreadful Colonial Athletic Association. To the Wildcats’ ill-timed defeat at the hands of Seton Hall, Tennessee gives you Georgia.

The fact is, there’s a lot of ugly out there, but the Wildcats have enough good to counter it.

As for Georgetown, this isn’t exactly a deal-breaker. Figuring out who is a No. 1 seed is as difficult as figuring out who the No. 1 team is. The Hoyas' grip on a top seed is slipping, but not entirely through their fingers. Not yet, anyway, with Syracuse still on tap Saturday to finish out the regular season.

Thompson, though, wasn’t too interested in tourney talk or fretting. Blessed with the luxury of knowing his team is in, he was more concerned about a more immediate prize -- the Big East regular-season title.

The Hoyas, once in control, now drop into a tie with Louisville and Marquette at 13-4 in the league.

"We needed this game also," said Thompson, whose team fell to 23-5 as its 11-game win streak came to a crashing halt. "We’re trying to win a championship and that’s just as important. We felt like we were just as desperate."

At this time of year, though, there is desperate, and then there is last-chance desperate. Villanova was last-chance desperate.

When the Wildcats lost to Columbia -- and not just lost, they lost by 18 -- Wright called it plainly.

"We were bad," he said.

The unhappy hecklers in and around Philly found their voices, frustrated with what looked like yet another Villanova season gone south.

Administratively, Wright was never on the hot seat; publicly, he was not exactly the golden child he once was.

But this team is the sort that Wright likes. The players are blue-collar and hard workers, grit sprinkled in with their talent. The Wildcats got better steadily, if not consistently and overwhelmingly.

That said, they still threatened more than once to be their own worst enemy. Villanova followed its unbelievable week of beating Syracuse and Louisville (putting Nova in the tournament) with back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Providence (out).

Two weeks later, the Wildcats regrouped again, stringing together three consecutive victories, including one against Marquette (in), before losing not only to Seton Hall and Pittsburgh, but losing games they should have won (bubble at best).

"You can’t say don’t look at it or don’t pay attention to it because it’s everywhere," Wright said of the tourney talk. "They’re going to see it. After we lost to Marquette and Pittsburgh, they all heard people saying, ‘Oh you’re out,’ so we just tell them to control what they can control."

Turns out Villanova actually controlled its destiny, too.

3-point shot: No hangover for Gonzaga

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1. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said on the ESPNU college basketball podcast that Florida coach Billy Donovan called him the day after the Zags lost to Butler. He told Few to tell his team "make sure Butler doesn't beat you twice." It was good advice. Gonzaga hasn't allowed a hangover since then -- I'm not counting a squeaker at San Diego since the Toreros have consistently played the Zags tough under former Gonzaga assistant Billy Grier. Few also had high praise for Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart. Few, Donovan and Shaka Smart coached him this summer with USA Basketball. Few said Marcus Smart took a "bunch of strangers," and molded them into a team. He added that he has a "ton of innate leadership,'' and simply called him a winner.

2. Villanova coach Jay Wright said on the podcast that the toughest part of the potential Big East seven split is not knowing what the nonconference schedule will be like for the next two seasons. The Wildcats have traditionally played Temple in the Big Five as a nonconference game. Unless the seven somehow leave early next season, the two teams will play a conference game or two against each other. But Wright said he's not sure, so the schedule will still be an unknown in February -- whereas in years past it would have been done already. Villanova knows who its six other conference members will be, but the seven will likely bump to 10 whenever it forms a new league. The top two choices will be Xavier and Butler out of the A-10. Questions remain about the third. The seven is likely going to stay private, and not necessarily Catholic. The question will be does the league go south or further west? Don't be surprised if Georgetown influences the decision and tries to get Richmond -- a scholarly school that has a decent hoop tradition and is geographically close enough to the others.

3. There is plenty of nostalgia from coaches as BracketBusters heads toward its final weekend Feb. 22-23. Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said the event has helped the Gaels make the NCAA tournament. Last year it helped turn their season around even in a road loss at Murray State. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he has had great experiences while head coach at Winthrop and Wichita. The chore for these schools will be to commit to playing each other and actually playing true home-and-home series. A Creighton-Saint Mary's game is good for both teams. The same can be said if Indiana State could schedule Akron, or Belmont could get Wichita to play a home-and-home series. These guaranteed games are a huge plus and should continue in some form.

Katz, Greenberg talk Zags, Villanova, more

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Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg talk to Gonzaga head coach Mark Few , Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall and Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
While fans are busy clamoring for Villanova to receive Top 25 votes and envisioning happily busy March days once more, Jay Wright isn’t quite there.

The Villanova coach has been on his team’s bandwagon all season, convinced that the Wildcats were a bunch that would and could get better as the season progressed.

But despite two eye-opening wins against Louisville and Syracuse that has everyone else’s tongues wagging about his team, Wright isn’t ready to say Villanova has arrived just yet.

Check back with him on Wednesday night, after the Wildcats play at Notre Dame.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jay Wright's Villanova team opened eyes last week with wins over Louisville and Syracuse.
“We’ve put together two very good games, back-to-back at home, which a lot of teams can do," Wright said. “So now this Notre Dame game is a great test for us. They’re a smart team. They play well at home. I’m not as concerned with whether we win or lose, but can we play with the same consistency we’ve played with over the last two games?"

Truth be told, if there was a corner to be turned for Villanova, Wright thought they rounded it three weeks ago, when the Wildcats won going away at South Florida. That the victory was followed up with three consecutive losses, including a dud at Providence, didn’t change Wright’s rose-colored opinion. In those defeats, he saw a team playing well and then shooting itself in the foot with turnovers late.

More important, he saw a team that didn’t waver in its confidence or its commitment. It’s that attitude that has endeared this roster to Wright, even when fans and outsiders were less obliged to love them.

Villanova hasn’t made it out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend since its Final Four run in 2009, hitting the nadir last season with a 13-19 finish.

Then the Cats started this season 4-4, losing to Alabama, Columbia and La Salle, a three-peat of misery that summoned the hecklers calling for Wright’s job and the players’ hides.

Wright kept saying he liked his team, and while cynics snickered, he meant it.

These Wildcats are more like the kind of players he used to build the program’s foundation. His first recruiting class, while highly sought after, wound up without a single player leaving early. But as success begat success, Wright found himself not only in the home of some terrific talent but wooing them to campus. They weren’t bad kids, but they were less invested in Villanova and more invested in leaving Villanova to move on to bigger and better things.

It was a bad partnership.

“This group understands they’re on a journey," Wright said. “They’re a really bright group. They get it. They respect the process. They respect that they have a lot of work to do. They aren’t coming in like some of our other groups were. They aren’t privileged or thinking they’re owed something. They feel like they have to earn this and build it all over again."

And really, if this were a building, Villanova isn’t much beyond a ranch home right now. Those two big wins propelled the Wildcats to 51 on the RPI, but pushed their record to only 13-7 overall.

One week, even one with two court stormings, does not a season make.

Villanova heads to South Bend a different team, not only because of the wins but also because of what the wins have done for the Wildcats’ credibility. It’s been a long time since this program has sauntered into an arena as a measuring stick team.

Now suddenly the Wildcats are.

“I’m really interested to see how we handle this," Wright said. “It’s easy to do when the only thing around you is negativity. It’s easy to ignore that because it’s uncomfortable. When everything is positive, when everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, that’s hard, especially for young guys.

“I think these guys have the kind of character to understand that they don’t know what they're doing and our staff has been through it, so they have to listen to and trust us. But the proof will be on Wednesday night."

3-point shot: Filling Jim Calhoun's shoes

September, 17, 2012
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1. Villanova’s Jay Wright, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Pitt’s Jamie Dixon all said this past week that UConn coach Jim Calhoun was a mentor to them when they got into the Big East. They mentioned how Calhoun essentially indoctrinated them into the league and Wright added that he was essential in helping Wright prepare for the Final Four in 2009. Calhoun has now retired. The senior statesman in the Big East, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, is off to the ACC in 2013. Now, veterans Dixon and Brey will be off to the ACC, as well, in 2013 and either ’14 or ’15 for Brey if not next season (if the Irish can buy their way out earlier). So who will be the leader in the league? The onus will now be on Wright and Georgetown’s John Thompson III to take the leadership role in the Big East meetings and be the new voices of the conference. Wright and JT3 have to be a dominant presence and speak up to help steer the direction of a conference that is looking for new roles going forward.

2. I agree with new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco that the league’s demise is not an issue. Losing Notre Dame is a brand hit. The whole key to holding the league together is keeping Louisville and Connecticut. So far the Big 12 and ACC haven’t shown any new interest in either party. Keep those two programs to go along with Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, Cincinnati, St. John’s and newcomers Memphis and Temple and the Big East should be able to secure a solid financial hoops package that likely will be televised by multiple partners from ESPN, NBC and CBS. I’ve never thought the Big East would go exclusive to one network. There is too much inventory for one network in hoops with 17 teams. Aresco is from the television world and it makes sense to maximize the viewership by distributing to multiple properties.

3. The Atlantic 10 doesn’t seem too concerned that it will get poached by the Big East, according to multiple league sources. It shouldn’t be at this juncture. I can’t see in the current climate the Big East adding a non-football-playing member to its roster of teams during a television negotiating period. As great a coup as it would be to land Xavier, the Big East doesn’t need the Musketeers when it has UC in the marketplace. And the above mentioned schools are enough to satisfy a TV deal. If any more alignment were to occur, the Big East can always grow with more football-playing schools like Boise State and San Diego State (BYU and Air Force are always options to explore).

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