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April 28, 2018

2018 NCAA DI Men’s Basketball March Madness Champions: The Villanova Wildcats

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After winning their second NCAA DI Men’s Basketball National Championship in three years, many are wondering what the special ingredient to the recent success of the Villanova Wildcats is. While championship titles in compressed time frames aren’t too uncommon in professional sports, it’s a much taller order in college sports. Rosters are continually changing due to factors like student-athlete graduation and players transferring. Furthermore, with popular sports like football and basketball, schools often lose star student-athletes early to professional sports drafts. This dynamic makes college programs that achieve national championship titles in condensed periods of time that much more impressive and inevitably leads to extensive speculation. Largely due to the ever-changing roster dynamic, college coaches who lead their respective teams to frequent national titles receive high praise. They are often the centerpiece of the speculation regarding what’s going well for the program and this year Jay Wright, head coach of the National Champion Villanova Wildcats Men’s Basketball team is no different.

Prior to their 2016 National Title, most would agree the Villanova Wildcats weren’t hyped up in the preseason as a national title contending team. While they’ve been a competitive threat for decades, they weren’t recognized for having the same level of success as true top-tier men’s basketball programs like Duke, UNC, Kentucky, UCLA, etc. In fact, before their memorable 2016 run, they had a single national title that came in 1985 when they won the March Madness tournament as a No. 8 seed (Unnamed Writer, Villanova.com). Aside from that 1985 season they had only one other national championship game appearance, which came in 1971 when they lost to the legendary John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins 68-62. That championship game appearance was later vacated by the NCAA after Villanova’s star player at the time, Howard Porter, was found to be in violation of NCAA rules. Porter, who won the 1971 NCAA Tournament’s MVP award for his performance, violated NCAA regulations by signing a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Colonials of the ABA as a senior in college (Unnamed Writer, ESPN). So prior to the “Jay Wright Era,” which started in 2001, leaving out the 1985 season for argument’s sake, you’d have to go all the way back to 1939 to find Villanova’s most recent official Final Four appearance. Fortunately for Wildcats basketball fans, although it didn’t come immediately after Jay Wright joined Villanova as head coach in 2001 their stature on the national level started heading on a much more positive trajectory.

Before joining Villanova in 2001, Jay Wright was the head coach of the Hofstra Pride Men’s Basketball team from 1994-2001. Competing in the Colonial Athletic Association, Hofstra Men’s Basketball is not known for being an impressive DI program. However, under Wright, the Pride started to see some minimal success on the national level in his final few years. In 1999 they made their first-ever appearance in the NIT, then in both 2000 and 2001 they made an appearance in the NCAA March Madness tournament for the third and fourth time in school history; their 2000 appearance was their third ever appearance and the first since 1977 (Unnamed Writer, Hofstra.edu). Though they would lose in the first round in all three tournament games, Wright demonstrated a unique ability to improve a frankly subpar DI men’s basketball program in a significant way. This landed him the head-coaching job at Villanova, which even in 2001 had an exponentially more prestigious reputation than Hofstra, where he would follow the same pattern of significant but long-term improvement.

It’s worth noting that today’s major-conference college athletics culture for head coaches is much different from what it was over 15 years ago when the Wildcats hired Wright. Specifically, in major DI football and basketball programs, you’ll often hear rumors about whether or not a prominent head coach will be fired after just one or two years of underachievement. In Wright’s first three years with the Wildcats, they compiled a hardly impressive 52-46 record (Gelston, Associated Press). The Wildcats didn’t make the NCAA March Madness tournament in any of those years, instead of competing in the NIT. Even there the Wildcats didn’t see much success, losing in 2002 in the Quarterfinals, the First Round in 2003, then again the Quarterfinals in 2004. For no known specific reason, 2005 marked the beginning of a new and much-improved era in Villanova men’s basketball history under Wright.

After posting double-digit losses in Wright’s first three seasons, the Wildcats finished the 2005 season with a 22-7 record. Most notably, this included an upset over the #2 nationally ranked Kansas Jayhawks and ultimately a No. 5 seed in the NCAA March Madness tournament. In Wright’s inaugural year in the March Madness tournament with the Wildcats, they made an impressive run into the Sweet Sixteen (NCAA.com). After beating New Mexico and a dangerous Florida Gators team, Villanova lost in the Sweet Sixteen to No. 1 seed – and eventual national champion – North Carolina. Perhaps it was due to newfound confidence from this breakthrough season, or Wright’s historically slow-paced improvement coaching style, but aside from one outlier exception in 2012, Wright’s Wildcats would continue to make the NCAA March Madness Tournament every season.

Immediately following this result in the 2006 season Villanova, led by seniors Randy Foye and Allan Ray, surpassed their 2005 season accomplishments. The Wildcats finished with a 28-5 overall record, including a dominant Big East record of 14-2, en route to their first Elite Eight appearance since 1988 of the NCAA March Madness tournament. For the first time in school history under any head coach, the Wildcats went into the 2006 March Madness tournament as a No. 1 seed (Unnamed Writer, Villanova.com). After beating Monmouth and Arizona, Villanova narrowly beat Boston College in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to the Florida Gators in the Elite Eight; the Gators would go on to be the eventual national champions that season. This impressive season didn’t go unrecognized for Wright. He received the CBS/Chevrolet National Coach of the Year award, the Naismith Award, and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) similarly honored Wright as National Coach of the Year; Wright was also named Big East Coach of the Year by the NCAA (Pedulla, USA Today).

The next two seasons were not especially noteworthy for the Wildcats, especially given their new standards under Wright. That quickly changed in the 2009 season when Villanova took yet another step closer to a national title. The 2009 Wildcats finished with an overall 30-8 record and a regular season record of 26-7, which broke the school’s record for most wins in the regular season. They had a relatively unimpressive 13-5 record in the Big East, certainly for Wright’s standards, but the biggest highlight of their season came at the most critical time: in the NCAA March Madness tournament. Coming into the tournament as a No. Three seed, Villanova won their first-round game against the No. 14 seeded American University Eagles by a slim margin. They would immediately elevate their game beating two of college basketball’s most prestigious programs, UCLA and Duke, in the next two consecutive rounds by a combined 43-point margin (Maaddi, USA Today). In the Elite Eight the No. Three seeded Wildcats scored a memorable upset against the No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Panthers. In the closing moments of the game Villanova guard, Scottie Reynolds made a layup with 0.5 seconds left, which was followed by a Pittsburgh miss. The 78-76 win for Villanova was dubbed “one of the great games in NCAA tournament history” by ESPN and resulted in them advancing to their first recognized Final Four appearance since 1939 (Davis, ESPN). While they were knocked out in the Final Four by the eventual national champion, North Carolina, yet again, Wright’s continued progress at Villanova would pay off in the near future.

The next season of note for Wright’s Wildcats came in 2012, but it was a season to forget. Villanova finished the season with a 13-19 record; after beating Rutgers in the first round of the Big East Tournament, the Wildcats lost in the second round to South Florida. This was the first time under Wright the Wildcats finished with an overall losing record, as well as Wright’s only year thus far where Villanova failed to make an NCAA March Madness tournament appearance (Unnamed Writer, CBS Sports). Villanova bounced back immediately, making the NCAA tournament in the next three seasons. Though they lost in the third round of the March Madness tournament in both 2014 and 2015, they finished first in the Big East with a 16-2 conference record both seasons. The Wildcats also broke school records for wins in those consecutive years, finishing the 2014 season 29-5 and the 2015 season 33-3 (Unnamed Writer, Villanova.com). As we now know, the best was yet to come for Villanova in 2016.

Villanova finished the 2016 season with another impressive 16-2 record in the Big East and 35-5 overall record; this earned them a No. 2 seed in the NCAA March Madness tournament. After beating UNC Asheville in the first round, the Wildcats broke a slew of records beating Iowa, Miami, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Carolina en route to the second ever NCAA National Championship in school history (and Jay Wright’s first of his career). Their 44-point win over Oklahoma is the most significant margin of victory for a Final Four round game in NCAA Tournament history (Winn, Sports Illustrated). Additionally, Villanova became the first school in 31 years to win the March Madness tournament without an FBS football program, defeating four straight teams ranked in the AP’s Top 10, and beat five total AP ranked teams in a single tournament (Winn, Sports Illustrated). It’s obviously worth mentioning these records from 1985 were all previously held by Villanova’s first ever national champion men’s basketball team. To make matters better, Villanova got revenge in epic fashion on North Carolina in the National Championship game for beating them in prior years en route to their national championships. With the score tied 74-74, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins nailed a 3-point buzzer beater propelling the Wildcats to a 77-74 National Championship game victory (Gasaway, ESPN). To this day, college basketball fans and general sports enthusiasts very commonly refer to Jenkins’ game-winning shot as “The Perfect Ending” (Gasaway, ESPN).

Villanova finished the 2017 season with an overall record of 32-4 and finished first in the Big East, with a 15-3 record. This earned the Wildcats a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but because they lost in the second round to No. 8 seed Wisconsin, this season didn’t go down as one to remember for Villanova fans.

Prior to the 2018 season, Jay Wright was awarded the prestigious Legends of Coaching Award (Press Release, Los Angeles Athletic Club). Although the Wildcats finished the regular season second in the Big East with a 14-4 record, they won the Big East Tournament and went undefeated in non-conference play finishing with a 36-4 overall record. This earned them a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA March Madness tournament, where they would make history again. After beating No. 16 seed Radford 87-61 in the first round, the Wildcats went on to defeat Alabama, West Virginia, and Texas Tech – all by double-digit margins – to advance to the Final Four. In their National Championship Semifinal game, Villanova convincingly beat another No. 1 seed, the Kansas Jayhawks, 95-79 thereby advancing to the National Championship game. The Wildcats would win the national title against No. 3 seed Michigan 79-62, securing their second national title in three years. Unlike their 2016 national championship, where they beat Kansas by 5 points and North Carolina in the finals by 3 points on Jenkins’ famous buzzer-beater, the Wildcats won every game in their 2018 national championship run by double-digit margins. There was yet another reason 2018 was a special one for the Wildcats; Jalen Brunson, who has now declared for the 2018 NBA Draft, became the first-ever Villanova Wildcat in 2018 to win the AP Player of the Year award (Unnamed Writer, Villanova.com). Brunson, who was also honored as the 2018 Big East Player of the Year, averaged 18.9 points, 4.6 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game during the 2017-18 season (NCAASports.com). Despite being recognized as the consensus NCAA Player of the Year, Brunson had a poor performance in Villanova’s NCAA finals win against Michigan. He played 28 minutes, below his season average of 31.8, finished with four personal fouls, above his season average of 2.0, and scored only 9 points as he shot 4-13 from the field and only 1-5 from 3-point range (NCAASports.com). Villanova was beating a powerhouse college basketball program in Michigan by 17 points, with their star player underperforming, speaks volumes about Jay Wright’s coaching abilities and the overall dominance of the 2018 Wildcats’ men’s basketball team.

With the 2018 National Championship, the Wildcats cement themselves as a true college basketball powerhouse. Before 2016, most would agree men’s college basketball programs like Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and even Villanova’s Big East rival Georgetown were much more synonymous with college basketball than the Wildcats. Now having three national titles, they equal the three national titles Kansas earned, surpass Michigan State and Louisville’s two recognized national titles (the NCAA officially vacated Louisville’s 2013 national title), and apparently outshine Ohio State, Michigan, and Georgetown who each have a single national title (NCAA Sports.com).

Undoubtedly all the Wildcats players throughout the years deserve a lot of credit, but surely Villanova basketball’s rise to prominence wouldn’t have been possible without Jay Wright. His 16 straight seasons as the head coach of Villanova significantly exceed the current average longevity – 5.2 seasons – of men’s basketball head coaches at major-conference programs (Gasaway, ESPN). Wright’s resume of awards and honors is incredibly impressive and certainly well earned. As mentioned, he won the coveted John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award in 2018. In addition, Wright is a 2-time recipient of the Naismith College Coach of the Year award and was named Big East Coach of the Year 5 separate seasons (Unnamed Writer, Villanova.com). Any review of Wright’s career isn’t complete without paying tribute to what he’s famously known for by commentators, fans, coaches, and even his players off the court; he is widely recognized as the “best-dressed man in college basketball” (Auerbach, USA Today). While it may be humorous, this isn’t a writer’s opinion. For those unfamiliar, GQ has a yearly award called the  “Fashionable Four,” where they recognize four of the best-dressed coaches in college basketball before ultimately choosing a single winner. Dating back to his head-coaching years at Hofstra, Wright has been selected as the best-dressed coach in college basketball in GQ Fashionable Four multiple times in consecutive years (Unnamed Writer, College Insider).

To end on a much more serious note, on April 12th the NBA’s New York Knicks fired head coach Jeff Hornacek after just two seasons (Bontemps, The Washington Post). Initially reported by the New York Daily News the day after Hornacek was fired, the Knicks were rumored to be very interested in reaching out to Jay Wright regarding their current head-coaching vacancy. The story has since been confirmed by Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, SB Nation, and many more sports news outlets. While Wright is yet to prove if the Knicks have in fact contacted him, or if he’s even interested in leaving his role at Villanova, but it’s clear the Knicks are very interested. Even though they’re coming off consecutive 50-loss seasons, the New York Knicks head-coaching position is easily viewed as one of the most prestigious jobs in professional basketball. It remains to be seen how that plays out, but either way, this latest development is an excellent achievement for a guy who started his basketball head-coaching career at Hofstra with a record of 31-51 in his first three seasons there (NCAASports.com).

 

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