Villanova Wildcats

Impressive coaching from Jay Wright proves essential for Villanova

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Impressive coaching from Jay Wright proves essential for Villanova

Jay Wright admitted he was surprised following Villanova's 28-point drubbing of Seton Hall on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. Wright wasn't surprised by the outcome of the game necessarily, but he was a little caught off guard by just how much progress his team has made over the last six weeks.

The Wildcats lost to No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 15 to drop to 8-4 on the season. Their four losses matched Villanova's loss total from each of the previous two seasons. In addition to the Kansas loss, they were blown out at home by Michigan, beaten by Furman in overtime, and bested by Penn, a loss that snapped Villanova's 25-game Big 5 winning streak.

The Wildcats' offense was clunky and more alarmingly, their trademark defensive intensity was nowhere to be found. It seemed like this group might be destined for the NIT.

Fast forward to the final days of January and Villanova looks like a completely different team. The Wildcats haven't lost since that mid-December Saturday in Kansas. They have won eight straight games, sit in first place in the Big East with a perfect 7-0 conference record and have climbed up to 14th in this week's AP Top 25 poll. 

It isn't a stretch to say this is Jay Wright's best coaching job in his 18 years as Villanova head coach. The Wildcats' improvement is truly staggering. The offense suddenly looks dynamic, the crisp ball movement and all-around unselfishness resembling the great Villanova teams of recent years. They are once again connected on defense, something senior Phil Booth points toward as the biggest reason for Villanova's winning streak.

Wright has won two national championships in the last three years, establishing Villanova as the country's premiere program over the last half decade. His teams won 165 games from 2014-2018, the most wins in a five-year period in college basketball history. Wright's resume will earn him induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame sooner rather than later.

Yet there are a handful of reasons why this season has been his most impressive work to date.

Leaning on the seniors

Booth and fellow fifth-year senior Eric Paschall have been nothing short of sensational. Wright has built the success of his program on the backs of upperclassmen, a rarity for a top-tier program in this era of college basketball. This season has been no different. Booth and Paschall are averaging 21.9 and 20.0 points per game, respectively, in Villanova's seven Big East games. They combined to score 26 of the Wildcats' 30 first half points Sunday against Seton Hall.

Wright calls Booth and Paschall two of the best players in the country. It's easy to see why. They do it all for the Wildcats, both in terms of on-court production and off-court leadership. Booth is performing at an All-American level and Paschall continues to boost his NBA Draft stock. This duo will become even more valuable in February and March. They have seen it all and have tons of winning experience. Wright's biggest challenge will be keeping Booth and Paschall fresh for the season's stretch run —  they both average just under 35 minutes per game.

Developing the complementary pieces

While Booth and Paschall were known commodities coming into the season, there weren't any other proven veterans on the Villanova roster. Grooming the Wildcats' complementary pieces is where Wright deserves the most credit. Sophomore Collin Gillespie has blossomed as a reliable floor general, averaging over 11 points per game and shooting just under 40 percent from three-point territory. Freshman Saddiq Bey is developing into an explosive, versatile all-around weapon.

Then there are sophomore forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, both of whom have stepped up into starring roles when needed. Factor in the steadiness of senior transfer Joe Cremo and the Wildcats have a solid blend of youth and experience. The rotation has been a juggling act for Wright. He has used seven different starting lineups in 20 games this season, often times adjusting to the tendencies and characteristics of the opponent on a game-by-game basis. Wright has deftly managed roles and egos within the Villanova culture he continues to develop. 

Managing the Quinerly situation

This has arguably been Wright's biggest challenge of the season. Freshman Jahvon Quinerly arrived at Villanova with lofty expectations — a McDonald's High School All-American billed as the next great Wildcats lead guard. But Quinerly was slow to adjust to how Villanova plays, particularly on the defensive end. He didn't get off the bench in four non-conference games, his frustration boiling over with a negative Instagram post following Villanova's loss to Penn.

But Wright understood that he was going to need Quinerly at some point and couldn't run the risk of losing him, either to a transfer or Quinerly mentally checking out on the season. Over the last six weeks, Quinerly has gradually become a more integral part of Villanova's rotation. He scored eight points in 15 minutes against Seton Hall on Sunday and figures to be more and more involved moving forward. Credit to both Quinerly and Wright for not letting this situation go off the rails back in December.

Wright has his team in terrific position to win a fifth Big East regular season championship in the last six years. The stumbles and frustration of November and December are a distant memory. February and March are regarded as the proving ground in college basketball and Villanova is poised to make yet another statement thanks in large part to their head coach.

Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

January 30th 1999.  I was a 15-year-old who wondered how the Phillies would build around Scott Rolen, marveled at Lindros and LeClair’s 40 goal seasons, happy to have Iverson back after a lockout and was suspicious about some guy named ‘Reid’ the Eagles just hired.  

In the midst of all this, my best bud, Ryan Bennett and his family, scored tickets to Villanova vs. Georgetown at the now Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday noon tipoff and they were kind enough to invite me along.  

I remember Ryan and I had a CYO High School basketball game that night in Lansdale at 7 p.m.

“No problem, plenty of time”, we thought. 

The Bennett’s picked me up at that morning and off we went to what would be the best game I ever saw... 

Our seats were in the upper level, 1st row, in a corner at the end Nova would be shooting at in the 2nd half.

Steve Lapas’ Wildcats opened with a 13-0 run on Craig Esherick’s Hoyas. Esherick had just taken over for the legend, John Thompson. 

Just as an aside. My friend and I kept thinking Esherick looked A LOT like Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds (aka Turd Ferguson) on SNL’s celebrity Jeopardy. You be the judge…

Anyway, back to basketball.  

In the 2nd half, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead only to see it wiped away with a 17-0 Hoyas run. Georgetown’s Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje’s lay-up tied the game at 67 with 2:30 left. RBB was a Cameroonian baller before it was trendy. 

I remember a slew of guys were in foul trouble. Including RBB and Malik Allen.

In the final :45 seconds, tied at 69-69, both Nova and G-town sent guys to the line to shoot two. Neither team hit a free throw. Missed all four.  

Nova had one final chance on an inbounds play with 11 seconds left in regulation. John Celestand got the ball, tried working for a shot, gave it up to Allen who shot and missed from the top of the key as time expired.  

1st OT

The Hoyas struck first with a three, then three players fouled out; the Hoyas’ RBB and Jaleel Watkins and Nova’s T.J. Caouette. Six players would end up fouling out of this game in total. 

With :11 seconds left and Nova down two, Brooks Sales hit two free throws to tie it at 78. Kevin Braswell, a freshman guard for the Hoyas brought the ball up and was picked up by Celestand. Braswell rose for the game winner with :03 seconds on the clock and Celestand stuffed him! The ball never even left the freshman’s hand! Celestand was all over it. Smothered! 

Time ran out. 

2nd OT 

The game seesawed a bit. Howard Brown banked in a three for Nova. Braswell responded with a driving lay-up. 82-81, Georgetown.

With a little over 2:00 left, Allen, fouled out.  Nova would keep pace thanks to a huge three from Brian Lynch with just over a minute left that gave the Cats an 87-86 lead.   

Then things got bleak for Nova. 

Georgetown took a 90-87 lead on another Braswell layup and a free throws from Daymond Jackson and Anthony Perry. Perry made the first of two, missed the second. Nova secured the rebound and pushed up the floor with :14 seconds left. 

Then a Nova Miracle. 

The Wildcats, down 3, crossed half court and set up their offense with nine seconds left. They worked it to Brown in the corner. The same corner my friend and I were sitting over in the upper level. Brown let it fly and hit the three to tie the game at 90. With 2.4 seconds left the Hoyas inbounded under the basket and threw a pass to half court. The ball was tipped by Nova and wound up in the hands of the Cats’ Jermaine Medley. Medley grabbed the ball, spun and shot all in one motion. 

Splash. 

Buzzer Beater. 

Nova Wins! 

The Wildcats scored six points in under four seconds to win in double overtime, 93-90. 

Me, Ryan and his parents jumped with excitement, high-fived and then ran to the parking lot. We had our own game to play. We got from the upper level to the car in record time and we were one of the first cars out of the lot. We just made our CYO game in Lansdale, which for the record, we won.

One of the things that made being at this game so awesome was that the broadcast had a horrible camera angle for Medley’s game winner. ESPN didn’t capture the shot live. When Ryan and I got to our game that night, a teammate couldn’t believe we “were at that game.” He said it wasn’t until replays aired that people at home actually saw what happened.  

Fast forward 17 years. I’m boarding a flight, Charlotte to Philadelphia. Christmas Eve. None-other-than Steve Lappas sits next to me. We get to talking. Incredibly nice guy. I bring up this Nova game. Two things he told me. He knew Celestand had Braswell on that block in the first OT and he still can’t believe how Medley made that circus shot at the end. Neither can I. 

Nova-Georgetown double OT, truly the best game I ever saw.  

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

Reuben Frank and Sean Kane both chose the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina as the greatest game they ever saw in person. Reuben was there as a reporter, Sean was there as a fan. Here are each of their perspectives. 

Reuben Frank: We're taught from Day 1 as journalists to never let your emotions show, to remain unbiased, and for the first 33 years, six months and 12 days of my career I had a perfect record. Then Kris Jenkins hit a jumper. So much for objectivity. I was court-side at NRG Stadium in Houston - second row, center court - when Jenkins his that 26-footer at the buzzer to give Villanova the 2016 NCAA Championship over North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure that Mike Kern of the Daily News, sitting to my left, and I both stood up and looked at each other and screamed "OHHHHHHHHHHH" at the top of our lungs when the ball splashed through the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Then, as the confetti rained down from the roof and bedlam ensued, Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me to celebrate and I began taking as many pictures as I could. The Super Bowl was dramatic and unforgettable. But for that Villanova-UNC game I was on top of the action, just a few feet from the court, just a few feet where I lost my cool after 33 years, just a few feet from the greatest shot in college basketball history. 

Sean Kane: This game narrowly edges out Super Bowl 52 and the classic Duke/Kentucky regional final at the Spectrum in 1992. I'm fortunate enough to have been in attendance for arguably the two greatest shots in college basketball history - Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to beat North Carolina. The 2016 national title game is my choice for a number of reasons. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I've been a Villanova fan for as long as I can remember. My grandfather went to Villanova. My uncle and cousin went there too. I've been going to Villanova basketball and football games since I was a little boy. So to be there to see my favorite team win a national championship at the buzzer? Nothing tops that. 

The 2016 Final Four was the first time I attended a Villanova NCAA Tournament game as a fan. I covered Villanova in the tournament every year from 2006-2009, trying my best to stay objective. But going as a fan was a new experience. My Dad and I decided to go as soon as Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. My wife immediately got us plane tickets and a hotel room in Houston and we left the morning of the national semifinals. We were there for Villanova's historic 44-point win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, the biggest blowout in Final Four history. The PGA Tour was in Houston that weekend, so we spent Sunday watching golf. It all worked out perfectly. Then the main event - Villanova and North Carolina in the championship game on Monday night. North Carolina had ended Villanova's season in the NCAA Tournament three times during the Jay Wright Era - 2005, 2009 and 2013. But this time was different thanks to Phil Booth's 20 points off the bench and Ryan Arcidiacono finding Jenkins for the win as the buzzer sounded. It was one of the greatest games in college basketball history. It ended with the best shot in NCAA Tournament history. And I was there to see it with my Dad, who raised me as a Villanova fan. That's as good as it gets for me.