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.”

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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USA Today Images

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.