Villanova Wildcats

Jay Wright on Rollie Massimino: 'He was just an incredible force on this Earth'

Jay Wright on Rollie Massimino: 'He was just an incredible force on this Earth'

As Villanova prepared to face North Carolina for the 2016 national championship, head coach Jay Wright wasn’t sure if Rollie Massimino would be able to be there. The former ’Nova coach had flown to Houston for the Final Four but couldn’t make the Wildcats’ national semifinal thrashing of Oklahoma as he dealt with the serious health issues that slowed him down over the last few years of his life.

But when Kris Jenkins hit a championship-winning shot for the ages, good ol’ Rollie was right there in the crowd, hugging people, laughing and soaking in a magical national title 31 years after he led the ’Cats to a magical one of his own.

“He was really sick during that Final Four,” Wright said. “But when he got there, all of a sudden the lights came on and he was on top of his game. I knew — and we all knew — that it meant probably as much to him that we won as it did when he won it.”

That’s because Villanova remained a huge part of his life, long after he left the program in 1992 following a brilliant 19-year run on the Main Line. And that’s also why his death Wednesday hit the entire Villanova community extremely hard (see story).

“He knew we all wanted him to be around,” an emotional Wright told reporters Wednesday. “And he wanted to be here. He always wanted to be at Villanova. 

"We’ll have the funeral here at Villanova. This is home.”

Knowing Massimino was in hospice care after battling cancer and other health problems for years, Wright went down to Florida to visit Massimino on Monday, along with many of his former players. The 82-year-old couldn't communicate at that point but Wright was able to say his final goodbyes to a man who shaped him into the coach — and the man — he is today by teaching him to treat a basketball program like a family.

He plans to continue carrying on those lessons into this season, when Villanova will honor Massimino in several yet-to-be-determined ways, and for many seasons after that. 

“That’s the best thing about Coach Mass,” Wright said. “He’s such a powerful force, he’s gonna live in all the players he coached, all the coaches that coached with him. We are all products of him.”

The stories of Massimino as a man are legendary, too. Fun-loving and affable, Massimino absolutely loved the people in his orbit — and loved playfully ribbing them. After Wright joined the Villanova staff in 1987, he said Massimino joked that he hired him because he thought he was Italian — and when he found out he wasn’t, he told him to keep it quiet.

“I can finally admit it now,” Wright said, “and he won’t get mad.”

The Villanova coach recounted another story from when Massimino first got the job at Northwood (now called Keiser) in 2006 and said in his introductory press conference that Villanova would be the first game on the schedule — at Northwood. When Wright got a call asking about this, he didn’t know Massimino had taken the job or even what Northwood, an NAIA school in Florida, was. And yet ... 

“I didn’t say anything but I thought, I’m probably gonna have to do it if he said so,” Wright recalled. “And we did.”

While Northwood/Keiser is certainly a much different level than Villanova, the fact that Massimino continued to coach there practically until the day he died was a remarkable thing for Wright to see — and indicative of how much basketball meant to him, even as his health deteriorated.

“He had every kind of cancer and he just wouldn’t stop,” Wright said. “He wouldn’t stop coaching. I really thought it kept him going, maybe for three or four extra years.”

Sometimes, it seemed like he’d keep coaching forever. And living forever, too.

“Coach Mass was just bigger than life,” Wright said. “I just thought if anybody was gonna beat cancer and never die, it was gonna be Coach Mass.”

In the end, though, even legends die. But from all the wins he amassed on the basketball court to the stories he made off of it, Massimino’s memory will live on forever.

“No one got more out of life than him,” Wright said. “He ate everything that was in front of him. He had a lot of good cigars. He drank a lot of wine. He had a lot of friends. He didn’t miss out on anything. He lived a full life. And all of his players from Northwood to Cleveland State to UNLV to Villanova, they all love him. 

“He was just an incredible force on this Earth.”

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

USA Today Images

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

Villanova is getting pretty accustomed to this whole No. 1 thing.

For the fifth time in the last six weeks, head coach Jay Wright's Wildcats are No. 1 in the AP poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes this time around. This week's spot on college basketball's top perch came after a successful week that saw the 'Cats smother then-No.10 Xavier, 89-65, on Wednesday evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The Musketeers fell to No. 11 after the defeat. Villanova followed that up by holding off a feisty St. John's squad, 78-71, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Wildcats sport this No. 1 ranking heading into their own rivalry week this week. They head to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to battle historic Big East rival Georgetown, led by first-year head coach and Hoya great Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas are 12-5 on the season, but just 2-4 in conference play. They most recently fell to No. 19 Seton Hall this past Saturday. After that, it's on to Connecticut for an old-school Big East matchup with the Huskies. The teams last met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a game UConn won on its way to the national championship. Villanova, though, holds a 33-31 all-time advantage.

As for the rest of this week's top five, Virginia moved up a spot to No. 2, Purdue jumped up to No. 3, Oklahoma shot up five spots to No. 4. and Duke crept up to No. 5.

Click here to view this week's top 25 poll in its entirety.

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

AP Images

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's


NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John's 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.

Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets -- going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders -- over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John's within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of "Let's Go Nova!" were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.

Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.

Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn't let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John's seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.

Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.

Ponds was a one-man band for St. John's. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.

Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova's last eight attempts.

St. John's hit one 3 the entire game -- one! -- and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John's hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.

Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.

The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they're again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.

St. John's: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there's little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John's hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John's beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.

Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.

Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.

The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.