Unbeaten Villanova emerges as Big East contender
VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP)
Jay Wright had to pause from praising his perfect Villanova team because a special delivery arrived at his office: a framed photo of Wright, his wife, school officials and former Wildcats coach Rollie Massimino at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
''Wow, just amazing,'' Wright said, scanning the photo. ''I got to go on stage, and to hug him when he came up, it was awesome.''
The gift would be presented to Massimino, who coached the Wildcats to the 1985 national title, a day later at Villanova's latest win, a romp over Rider that has the Wildcats at 11-0 and No. 8 in The Associated Press poll.
One problem, Wright wanted his own copy for his office. But where to hang it? The walls are already coated in collages and pictures of some of Villanova's great players and moments since Wright took over in 2001. Walk into his office and the first image frozen on the wall is one of Darrun Hilliard and Daniel Ochefu in full chest-bump celebrating a special moment during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November.
The Wildcats knocked off ranked Kansas and Iowa teams to win the championship and solidify themselves as a true threat to win the revamped Big East and maybe even make another deep run in March. Up next, a Saturday showdown at No. 2 Syracuse (11-0) in a game between former conference rivals.
With a win against the Atlantic Coast Conference's Orange, the Wildcats will inch closer toward their program-best 13-0 start in 1937-38.
The good times are back at Villanova and Wright has his team looking like the ones stocked with NBA draft picks that played in four Sweet Sixteens and a Final Four from 2005-09. The Wildcats then had two straight early NCAA tournament exits before the program bottomed out with a 19-loss season in 2011-12. The would-be future pros instead became college washouts and a loaded Big East had fun sending the Wildcats toward the bottom of the standings.
''If you look at 13-19 to No. 8 in the country, that's a big jump,'' Wright said. ''But that was a crazy year. Are we the No. 8 team in the country? I don't know. But I like where we are a lot.''
Wright erased the worst season in Villanova history with a 20-14 mark last season, four wins over Top 25 teams and a surprising berth in the NCAA tournament. That the season ended with 78-71 loss to North Carolina in the second round wasn't as much a disappointment as it was the first step toward rebuilding the program into regular March contenders.
''I don't think it was as bad as it looked two years ago,'' Wright said. ''It might not be as good as it looks right now.''
Tell that to the Jayhawks. Or the Philadelphia teams Villanova has crushed to ascend again as the top dog in city hoops. They beat La Salle, a Sweet Sixteen team in 2013, by 21, and routed Penn by 23 and Saint Joseph's by 30.
''I think it's a wonderful, wonderful team,'' Hawks coach Phil Martelli said. ''Where do they fit nationally? I don't know where it could end up for them. Certainly, they're going to get a lot of opportunities with the schedule they play.''
In a sign of the times of shifting conference alignments, the Wildcats actually close their nonconference season against Syracuse before opening Big East play against Butler, only the fifth time in the 81-game history of the Orange-Wildcats series they won't both be part of the Big East.
Wright said this year's team has a chance to become as good as his best ones from 2005-09. JayVaughn Pinkson (16.5 points), James Bell (15.4) and Hilliard (14.4) lead an offense averaging 82.5 points a game. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins have earned their way through their play, not preseason hype, into the discussion of top freshmen of the season. Ryan Arcidiacono usually can't buy a basket - until he bails them out with a late 3-pointer like he did against Kansas or the tying shot in regulation last season that helped the Wildcats upset No. 3 Syracuse in Philadelphia. Dylan Ennis and Ochefu (21 blocks) help make the Wildcats as well-rounded as any team in the Top 25.
The Wildcats are loaded with talented underclassmen committed to the program and brimming with potential, far removed from underachievers like Dominic Cheek that nearly sunk the program.
''We got caught in a situation where we had guys that were coming in thinking about leaving early,'' Wright said. ''So we were backing ourselves up in recruiting thinking they were going to leave. Then they didn't leave. They were frustrated they were here and the guys behind them weren't getting the playing time to develop. I think we learned a good lesson from that.''
With Orange coach Jim Boeheim taking his Hall of Fame resume to the ACC, Wright is now the longest-tenured coach in the Big East. For a variety of reasons - from tradition, to recruiting pipelines, to an RPI boost - Wright wants to keep some of the former Big East rivalries alive. The Orange come to Philadelphia next season and Wright said there are talks to renew a series with Connecticut.
''I know how much those games mean to everyone in those towns,'' Wright said.
Also on the horizon, a new arena that would be plopped on the same spot as the Pavilion. The Wildcats could hit the road for a season, maybe even play at the 76ers' home court, the Wells Fargo Center, while the Pavilion is renovated or gets the wrecking ball.
''Do you just tear the whole thing down or renovate it and still get the amenities you want,'' Wright said. ''That's what we're trying to figure out.''
Tear it down, start over, and build something bigger and better.
Sounds a lot like Wright's Wildcats.
Even with Syracuse looming, it feels good for now sitting at No. 8.
''It does, man. It does,'' Wright said, smiling. ''Can't complain.''
Follow Dan Gelston at twitter.com/apgelston