Best work ever by 'Cats' Wright, Hawks' Martelli

Posted: March 24, 2014

IN PHILADELPHIA, we have been blessed with a history of great college basketball and great college basketball coaches. Think about it: We've had true legends like Harry Litwack, John Chaney, Jack Kraft and Rollie Massimino and future NBA greats like Dr. Jack Ramsay and Chuck Daly. Our current crop of coaches is keeping up the tradition. In fact, for Jay Wright and Phil Martelli, the two local coaches whose teams reached the NCAA Tournament this year, this season could be said to be the best coaching jobs of their illustrious careers.

In his 13 years as Villanova's head coach, Wright has done a consistently outstanding job. In four previous seasons, he has been nothing short of amazing. In the 2004-05 season, his fourth, he led an undersized team to a 24-8 record with two wins in the NCAAs (over New Mexico and Florida). The Wildcats were ousted in the third round, losing by a point to No. 1 seed North Carolina. The next year, those same Wildcat Smurfs (Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi and Allan Ray) did even better, going 28-5 and winning three games in the NCAAs (over Monmouth, Arizona and Boston College). They were eventually defeated by Florida in the regional final. As good as those 2 years were, Jay's 'Cats finally reached the promised land of the Final Four in 2008-09 with an even smaller band of Smurfs, led by a true collegiate superstar, Scottie Reynolds, and the two Coreys - Fisher and Stokes. They achieved a 30-8 record and reached the Final Four by defeating American, UCLA, 2-seed Duke and 1-seed Pitt. They lost in the national semifinals to eventual champion North Carolina. Jay had the 'Cats playing an up-tempo, end-to-end game, a strategy that ran most teams into the ground. Only North Carolina's incredible depth allowed it to withstand the Villanova onslaught.

This year's Wildcats have given Jay his best regular-season record ever, 28-4. As they prepare for the rest of their tournament run, they have a legitimate chance to make it to Dallas. Not necessarily based on their talent, as they will most likely have to go through either Virginia or Michigan State, two teams that are more talented. That's assuming they beat Connecticut tonight. They can win, though, because no team in America plays better team basketball. Jay has taken nine good players and molded them into a relentless, interchangeable machine that never quits. They have no superstar or a single go-to guy. They pick each other up, dive for every loose ball and defend fiercely. That's a tribute to the kids, but make no mistake: It's first and foremost the product of great coaching - Jay Wright's best work ever.

Martelli, the Hawks' colorful leader, has given Big 5 fans 19 terrific years. I believe his two best coaching jobs came in consecutive years. All college basketball fans will remember St. Joe's amazing 29-0 start to the 2003-04 season, when the Hawks were 10 seconds away from a trip to the Final Four. They will recall that the team had two talented stars in Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, who both went on to the NBA. What most people won't recall is how thin their bench was and what a great job Phil did blending the talents of his two stars into perhaps the ultimate example of a smart, heady team. The Hawks were almost always outmanned and outgunned, but they seemed to never make mistakes and were too disciplined to ever beat themselves. Phil truly deserved to be national coach of the year that year, but he did an even better job the following year. Nelson and West had graduated and Pat Carroll was the Hawks' only real offensive threat. Again, Phil had them playing great team basketball. They achieved a 24-12 record and made it to the NIT championship game.

This year, Phil did it again. He took a team that basically played with five men and no bench at all to the tournament. Despite being as thin as could be, the Hawks recovered from a bad start (so bad that it had some alumni calling for Phil's head) to finish 24-10, winning the A-10 Tournament before losing an overtime heartbreaker to UConn in their NCAA second-round game. They would have won that game had Halil Kanacevic not fouled out. One mark of a good coach is whether his players improve under his guidance. Halil did so in amazing fashion. He went from a raw, out-of-control hot head to a coach on the court who directed the Hawks' offense and was named the MVP of the A-10 Tournament. The Hawks' freshman star, DeAndrè Bembry, also grew dramatically during the season to the point where he held his own with the Huskies' guard tandem of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Phil, at his best, is a great teacher and great motivator.

Whatever happens to Villanova in the rest of March Madness, there is one thing that Big 5 fans can be sure of: As long as Jay and Phil are around, the rich history and legacy of the Big 5 will be in good hands.

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