There’s more than one way to build a championship team, as Villanova demonstrated last season.
The Wildcats built methodically after a one-season nosedive in 2011-12, gradually adding pieces until they were once again a top-10 program and eventually a national title team last spring. There were not quick fixes and most certainly not a revolving door on the roster.
It was in many ways a throwback approach to how much of college basketball used to operate. And perhaps the pendulum could swing back in that direction in the years to come as a result of Villanova’s success.
“I think more people would really love to build it like this, and I think there’s maybe a trend back toward that,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “When guys get jobs, my theme to them is ‘Get old and stay old’ by way of redshirting, by way of picking a transfer off, whatever you need to do. I always thought if I’m going to the Carrier Dome and I’m starting two freshmen and two sophomores, it’s going to be a long darn night up there.”
Indeed, Villanova and Notre Dame have arguably used this approach to the greatest effect in recent years, which makes their matchup on Saturday in Newark, N.J., especially interesting. Both teams entered the week undefeated, and if lineup trends hold, there will be five seniors, three juniors and two sophomores on the floor for the opening tip.
Notre Dame is the only program in the country coming off back-to-back regional final trips, so the system works well for Brey. It would also be ludicrous to think truly high-end programs will eschew chasing elite talents unlikely to spend more than a year on campus when it can net a national title; just ask Kentucky (2012) or Duke (2015) about that approach’s allure.
Still, only a few programs can pursue that philosophy with success. Most must develop core groups over time, and that’s especially true for a coach stepping into a total rebuild.
Is it wise to fill up a roster with transfers and try to produce something immediately? Is it wise to wait when it merely shortens the window on a typical five-year contract for a coach?
“I think you have to have a calculated plan of how you’re going to attack your roster — the players you’re going to bring onto your roster, the traits that they have,” first-year Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. “First of all, I want kids that want to be at Rutgers and I want kids that want to believe in me. If you look at Jay Wright’s team, those kids believed in Jay Wright. Jay believed in them, too.”
There are also factors inherent to each job. Access to talent is probably a greater necessity in football, where there are far more roster spots to fill up in each recruiting class. But geographical concerns matter in basketball, particularly in the western half of the country where talent (and population) is generally more spread out.
“If you look at Villanova’s style, it really fits their base,” Minnesota coach Richard Pitino said. “If you look at Wisconsin, Wisconsin’s style fits their base. Everywhere you look, in my opinion, your job is predicated on proximity to players. What’s great about Villanova is Jay Wright can get in a car and recruit a whole roster within an hour and a half to two hours. You have to figure out ‘How do you get players?’ and ‘How do you play with those players?’ ”
There’s also a matter of self-preservation. At the mid-major level, it’s usually (though not always) understood a coach needs time. Some transfers come and go, but there usually aren’t concerns of players turning pro early.
Further up the food chain, expectations from various sectors can prod a coach into doing what is most likely to keep his job safe. It’s not a given a five-year (or even a three-year) plan will be tolerated.
“If from the top on down, they were all into that process, believed in that process, accepted that process, welcomed that process — the fanbase, the alums, the AD, the president,” Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said. “I’m not defending any one-and-done coaches, but if their fanbases are not going to be patient enough to wait three or four years while you build up your freshmen and sophomores. If they want immediate gratification, that’s what you have to give them.”
Of course, it’s not as if many name-brand programs abandoned the traditional model to begin with. There’s just varying degrees of success. Not everyone attracts Villanova’s level of talent, but there’s also a degree of good fortune involved as well.
Brad Brownell is in his seventh season at Clemson, but it wasn’t until last year that his leading scorer returned the following season. As ideal as it is to shepherd a four-man class through a four-year career, it doesn’t always work out that way.
“Sometimes, it’s not easy for all four of those guys to be good players,” Brownell said. “You need one of them to be special, you need two more to be good starters and maybe one guy to be a [role player], but it’s not easy for that happen. It’s not easy for somebody not to transfer. It’s not easy for somebody not to get hurt. We all have these great grandiose plans, but you know what the good Lord says when you try to make a plan. He laughs at that.”
But sometimes it does work, and perceptions can change in a hurry as a result. Remember, Villanova hadn’t made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009 before last year. Brey had one Sweet 16 trip in 14 years at Notre Dame before the past two years.
The model, though, does provide hope. Even after losing Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson, the Irish are again a dangerous team, thanks to the return of V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Steve Vasturia, mainstays from Notre Dame’s past two teams. Each is averaging more than 15 points, with Colson averaging a double-double.
“We’ve lost four NBA-caliber guys in two years, but we still have older guys playing and they won together,” Brey said. “You feel you have a shot to get back in that thing in March again. It’s a great way to coach.”
The vagaries of recruiting don’t always allow that, but strong talent coupled with time can help with cohesiveness. That doesn’t always lead to title-winning results, though it surely didn’t hurt Villanova last year. It’s not the only path to success, but it shouldn’t be forgotten while assessing college basketball this season.
“We are copycats, but what made their team great is they were together for a long time,” Turgeon said. “What made Oklahoma’s team great was they were together for a long time. That’s why I was so proud of my team last year. We were together six months and did what we did. Kansas was together for a long time. What Jay and Villanova did last year was simply amazing. To play at that level for six games and beat the teams they beat is pretty special.”