Dana O’Neil used to cover Jay Wright and Villanova at the Daily News. She’s now with ESPN.com and one of the best college basketball reporters on the planet. She knows Wright and his program perhaps better than anyone in the media. Today, she wrote this absolutely brilliant, insightful, and not-exactly-sunshiny profile on Wright, his struggles at Villanova, and how success after 2009 almost burned the program down.
“I remember, he said to me, ‘It’s so hard not to get intoxicated with fame,'” [former assistant] Lange said. “I didn’t know exactly what he meant at first, but he was saying how you go to the Final Four, and guys want to show up. They want to play for you. And it’s so easy to just take guys. You don’t stop and think, ‘Wait, this isn’t what we did before.’ You just do it.”
After 2009, it was supposed to be simple. Instead, it became much harder. Wright has admitted that he lost his way, blinded by his own success and starry-eyed at the players who wanted to join his team. He made huge mistakes and costly ones, recruiting kids who topped the rankings but didn’t necessarily match the prototype he had recruited his whole career.
The bottom dropped out in 2011-12, when the Wildcats finished 13-19, but it had been coming for years. Wright knew it. He saw it coming. He just couldn’t stop it.
“Villanova got so good so fast,” Lange said. “Things start to deteriorate underneath you, and you don’t even know what’s happening. You spend so long trying to get it back, to keep people to respecting you, and then all of a sudden, it happens. He got caught up in it. Who wouldn’t?”
Players who were evaluated as one-and-dones stuck around longer than they would have liked, and a program on the rise couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Wright has admitted to some serious soul-searching. Although his administration never pressured him — “He was never on the hot seat with us,” Nicastro said — Wright pressured himself to change.
This is the most accurate and real thing I’ve ever read about Villanova.
Back in 2010, I wrote a post for PhillySportsDaily.com – a Philly sports site started by John Miller which no longer exists but launched the careers of Tim McManus (needs no intro), Steve Whyno (Canadian Press hockey writer), Dave Isaac (Flyers beat writer for the Courier Post), and included contributions from Stephen A. Smith and Jim McCormick (ESPN.com fantasy) – in which I commented on Jay and Villanova recruiting highly-soughtafter players of questionable character. This was just after JayVaughn Pinkston had punched someone out at a frat party before his freshman season even started (he was suspended for the year). Players like Maalik Wayns, Dom Cheek, Isaiah Armwood and Pinkston were talented, for sure, but, from the outside, didn’t seem like the sort of team-first, character guys that made up Jay’s teams up until 2009. [I actually went back a couple of seasons to include Taylor King and even Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes, all of whom somewhat underachieved at Villanova.]
I had partnered with PSD, and as part of the deal I wrote a weekly column for them. To get some exposure, for both sites and myself, I posted a link to the article, which I thought contained a more than fair observation, to a premium Villanova message board to which I was a paying subscriber and had been a frequent contributor for several years. I got crushed by the commenters. You think what’s in the comments here are bad– this was worse. From people I “knew” or had met at events. Other alumni, students, and supporters of the program whom I admired. The backlash affected me more than any post I’ve ever written. In fact, it’s one of the few that I ever truly felt bad about after writing. But what O’Neil addressed here is exactly what I was getting at. Somehow, it seemed, Jay was coaching better players, but a worse team. This, to me, explains the tournament failures over the past five years. O’Neil nailed it.
This is just one of many tremendous insights in her piece, which even includes Kyle Lowry, who’s still incredibly close to the program, saying Wright has “a big ego.” Overall it’s a postive story, but it’s about as real as it gets.
I don’t have a link to that column I wrote in 2010, but I do have an excerpt taken from an emailed rough draft. It is after the jump.
These are the types of problems found among many of the nation’s top programs. Syracuse had a player who throw a toaster at a female student, UCONN has had to deal with theft, drugs, and assault charges for its players over the past decade, and Kentucky is in the midst of dealing with rumored recruiting violations. It’s the price team’s pay for competing for top talent. Schools have to be less selective with the type of players they bring in. That’s certainly not to say all high school standouts are bad people. Far from that, actually. Scottie Reynolds was known as a quite kid who would miss shoot-around for Sunday games so he could attend church in King of Prussia. One issue with a teammate doesn’t change four years of being a standout citizen. But the point is that when you are competing with the North Carolinas and Dukes of the world, like Villanova finds itself doing these days, you can’t be as concerned with the character of the players you are bringing in.
Schools are fighting for players from a very small pool of talent. There are some good kids, and their are some bad ones. But talent, not character, has to be the number one trait school’s look for in those players if they want to compete at a high level. This is especially true for a school like Villanova, where their chances of recruiting success with those players isn’t as great as it is for the more proven, storied programs.
There will be a number of articles written about the recent troubles for Villanova’s basketball team (which, by the way, are in stark contrast to the recent success of their football program), but those troubles are simply a bi-product of the world in which Villanova finds itself these days.
Of course, as an alumni, it would be nice to have this be the last off the court incident we have to discuss.