Wildcats sticking together

Jay Wright
Jay Wright
Posted: March 18, 2011

CLEVELAND - Jay Wright used to brag about how his big-time program did not include big-time pressures. He could screw up a game on Sunday and not hear about it on Monday thanks to the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, Sixers.

OK, so maybe not the Sixers.

Anyway, those days are gone. These days, Wright's bragging, if you can call it that, is about his Villanova team holding it together amid the adversity and scrutiny produced by a five-game losing streak. He employs words like "psyche" and "perspective," and deftly digs at criticism by lauding how players, like embattled senior guard Corey Fisher, have handled it.

Clearly, he is grasping. Or coaching. Or coaching by grasping. On Sunday, when 'Nova was seeded lower than today's Colonial Athletic Association foe, George Mason, Wright described his team as "underdogs" then, when challenged, drew it back. When he met the media at the Quicken Loans Arena yesterday, Wright spoke about the perception of his team as unsuccessful despite finishing with an identical record to St. John's 21-11.

"There was an article about St. John's and what a great year they had and how they've been restored to prominence," Wright said. " . . . In Philly, 21-11 and Villanova is a horrible season. But that's OK. I'm just learning. We're all learning that's part of what you have to deal with."

There are alums from other Philly schools who will wince and boil reading this, but 'Nova has become this city's fifth major team. The Wildcats are on network television more. They play in huge buildings more. As Villanova strung together Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four appearances over the last half decade, St. Joe's has conveniently disappeared from the NCAA Tournament landscape and Temple, until yesterday, has disappeared as soon as it gets there.

There has been a continuum to 'Nova's successes, due largely to a lineage of great college guards. Foye, Ray, Lowry, Nardi, Reynolds and now Fisher - as Wright accurately pointed out yesterday, the latest in that line is compared not to his peers, but his predecessors.

Wright, too, now butts against his past. Last year's wimpering finish, this season's winless one, has some in 'Nova Nation convinced he spends too much time selling the program rather than teaching those who buy in. Too much TV. Too much radio. Too smooth. Too damn good-looking for his own damn good.

The truth may be the opposite. Those long NCAA runs have cost Wright some of his most trusted sergeants. Brett Gunning had been an assistant with Wright for seven seasons at Hofstra, and was a big part of Villanova's successes until he left to become the Houston Rockets' director of player personnel after the 2008 season. By then, rivals.com listed him as one of the nation's top 25 college assistants. The press release announcing his hire cited his "on-court teaching, recruiting and scouting with the Wildcats" and mentioned his contributions to the "development of such recent Villanova standouts as Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray."

Pat Chambers was a Villanova assistant from 2004 and received the title of associate head coach after the 2008 run to the Sweet 16. The 'Cats made the Final Four the following season, and Chambers was hired by Boston University shortly after that.

Ed Pinckney took a job with the Timberwolves before the start of the 2007 season, replaced by another former 'Nova player, Doug West, who left after last season to pursue business opportunities.

Of his current staff, only Jason Donnelly and Keith Urgo have been along for the string of NCAA successes. Donnelly was promoted from manager of basketball operations into a coaching position before the 2008-09 season, Urgo was elevated from the same spot after last season. This is no rap on them, or their peers - trust is a process, not a potion. But Wright admitted yesterday that how much "hands-on" coaching he does "changes each year based on the experience of the staff."

"This staff now, we've got a good core right now," he said. "They've got a good feel. So a little bit less hands-on than maybe last year. But I'm usually very hands-on."

"He's involved in everything," said senior forward Antonio Pena. "He's not just leaving it up to his assistants to do anything. Coach Wright, he's a mentor for me. He's taught me so much, not only on the court but off the court. Just teaching me how to become a man and teaching me the little things about basketball that everybody should learn."

Pena was answering a question about Wright the coach vs. Wright the high priest. He's both, as the answer implied, and as this team's unified front reinforces. One by one, Pena, Fisher and Corey Stokes took turns channeling Wright yesterday, talking leadership and team health and body of work, reworking their five-game losing streak so well it almost sounded like a blessing.

Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn't. We'll have a better feel after this afternoon's game against George Mason. But make no mistake. The spin, the sell, the unified front - well, that's some pretty nifty coaching.

Send e-mail to donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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