The coach, reminded Monday night that he is suddenly the only active sort in men’s college basketball other than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams with multiple national titles, paused in an Alamodome hallway and said, “Wow,” and paused again, and said, “I certainly do not, I’ll tell you honestly, count myself in that category.”
Then: “I still like looking up to them. I do. It’s better that way.”
He has one more title than Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, Bill Self . . . .
“Not something I would like to think about, honestly,” Jay Wright said.
With him, one of the keys to winning national championships is not trying to win national championships. Told that the name “Villanova” no longer means a really good Big East program but more of a titan, he said: “Yeah, I’m not sure I’ve comprehended that yet. It is very humbling that we’ve been able to do this, and as long as we keep our mind on the fact that our goal is never to win the national championship, our goal is to be the best team we can be by the end of the year . . .”
Wright remains the guy who readily tells of paranoia leading up to Villanova’s 79-62 win over Michigan. He’ll tell you how he thought all the Final Four distractions and the specific award presentations for national player of the year Jalen Brunson had dented the all-around preparation. He’ll tell you flat-out about Michigan, “They did some things early in the game we were not prepared for and jumped on us.” He’ll readily recollect how he feels he blew a choice as recently as 2015 in a second-round loss to N.C. State, shortchanging on minutes a hot player that night because that player was a freshman. He’ll give a long answer comparing national titles — this one “really fulfilling, really humbling,” the 2016 one “overwhelming” — then check: “Does that make sense?”
He kept saying he never dreamed of this, but doesn’t everybody? Maybe not quite. “In ’09, when [we] went to the Final Four,” he said, “I thought, ‘Hey, that was the highlight of my career. I’ll take it. That was good.’ As a coach, when you get to a Final Four, that’s unheard of, so beyond getting to a Final Four, I never even thought about anything like that.”
Suddenly, on Monday night, he had a moment with a stalwart mainstay, Brunson, exiting a game long since won, in the final minute, then squatting and crying, Wright pulling Brunson off the court, Brunson getting up and saying, “I love you,” and Wright saying, “I love you, too,” a 21-year-old and a 56-year-old who have shared two national championships.
They had gotten there in part because of a display of their roster’s extraordinary breadth, because of that curious rarity: a sub who introduces himself to the viewing nation at large, beyond just the hoop savants, who leaves the bench in the first half to start dropping in the most points ever by a sub in a title game (31).
After all that, Donte DiVincenzo, the 6-foot-5 Delawarean sophomore, sat at his locker and said: “I wouldn’t want it any other way, honestly. If I was starting this year or we made the change midway through the year, something like that, it would have messed up what we had. And those guys know what I was bringing off the bench, and I knew what those guys started with. I didn’t want to mess that up.”
It’s not like it surprised anyone familiar with the Wildcats. This No. 10 who began raining three-pointers on Michigan, and also driving by Michigan to the basket with charismatic intent, did average 13.4 points this season. He snowed 30 on Butler. He did add 15 to the national semifinal onslaught against Kansas. He did prompt Wright to say in general, “Donte’s willingness to come off the bench this year as a sixth man really separated us from other teams, because he was a sixth starter, you know.”
DiVincenzo took the floor with enough cheekiness to wink to the stands during play at former Villanova player Josh Hart of the Los Angeles Lakers, because those two used to maul each other in practice.
“It just shows how much depth we have as a team and how we just don’t care who gets the credit,” Brunson said. “If someone is hot, feed him.”
It’s just that DiVincenzo had come from a basketball non-hotbed, and he hadn’t rebounded or defended with all that much zeal for a while in life, and Wright had dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of Delaware” (then had forgotten doing so, but the teammates picked it up). “He worked really hard and he wanted to start,” Wright said. “And he was initially a little upset that he wasn’t starting. . . . I actually heard my assistants on the bench [Monday night] when he was [beginning] to go off, I heard them saying, ‘This is great for him; he deserves this.’ ”
“What you saw tonight was what he did in high school,” Wright said. “All the time. But he was playing in Delaware, and people didn’t respect the competition he was playing against. He was doing that and he was playing no defense and not rebounding. But because he was the best player on the team by far, they just had to keep him in the game.”
That has changed at Villanova, of course, the chance at the offense hinging upon the upgraded defense and rebounding. “And a lot of it goes to Jalen Brunson,” Wright said. “Those two are really close; they’re roommates. Donte loves playing basketball; he played all the time. He just didn’t know how to work at it. He didn’t know how to do drills.
“But Jalen did, and he lives with Jalen, and they work out all the time, and he sees Jalen’s seriousness, and they’re really close. I don’t know if he would admit it, but I know he emulates Jalen, but he competes with Jalen. In practice, they kill each other.”
Conclusion: “So it’s a really cool relationship.”
In fact, Villanova’s array of really cool relationships has helped drag further upward a Big East that looked imperiled in late 2012 when that slew of schools with football in their heads bolted it, and the basketball schools mustered up their new conference.
“Initially I was scared to death,” Wright said. “I really was, just because I’ve been an assistant in the old Big East and then a head coach in the old Big East, and it’s everything. I knew I thought it was the greatest conference in the country.”
Five-plus years on, the 10-team Big East had two of the four No. 1 seeds this year (counting Xavier). It has two of the last three national championships (counting Villanova). It has continued respirating without big football. It has four teams that beat Villanova this season.
“What I learned over time is, we’re authentic,” Wright said. “Everybody’s basketball. Everybody’s metropolitan, private school. Played home and away. We are what we are.”
He concluded, “It’s amazing how much authenticity can carry you.”
Look now, and that does seem to be so.
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