HOUSTON — The last time Jay Wright coached Villanova in the Final Four in 2009, it only took a few minutes of game action before he realized he’d made a mistake. The Wildcats trailed by 17 points in the first half against a North Carolina team that was in the second of back-to-back Final Fours. Wright felt he hadn’t prepared his team to the level that Roy Williams had prepared North Carolina.
“You could just see the focus in Carolina. I think they were there the year before, I’m not sure. You could see the focus in those guys,” Wright said Friday of that 2009 Final Four experience. “You could see our guys were just playing a game. I knew. It was about 10 minutes into the game. I knew. I was like, ‘I didn’t get these guys ready.'”
That previous 2009 experience has fueled a change in how Wright and the Villanova coaching staff is approaching Saturday’s national semifinal against Oklahoma. Throughout the 2015-16 season, Wright spoke with his team about the regrets he faced in that 2009 semifinal game and how he apologized to that roster for not preparing them more for that Final Four game. It’s led to a focused and more prepared Wildcat team that is all business in Houston.
“I always said, ‘If we ever get there again, it’s not about enjoying the moment and the trip and all that because once you lose the game, there’s no enjoyment. You’re there to play the game,'” Wright said.
“I said, ‘If we ever get the chance, we’re going to stay focused, not let the distractions get to us, even though the distractions are positive.’ We’ve done that so far. I think that’s the challenge of this tournament. If you can stay focused on basketball.”
Oklahoma and head coach Lon Kruger are taking a different approach to Saturday’s game and the trip to Houston.
Kruger is also coaching in the Final Four for the second time — the first time came in 1994 with Florida — and he wants his players to relish the opportunity and soak everything in. The Sooners are still focused on what they need to do to beat Villanova on the court, but they’re also trying to be a part of the Final Four experience.
“That’s our goal in coming here, we want them to take it in,” Kruger said. “We want them to see it, feel it, look around, not leave thinking, ‘I didn’t know all that went on at a Final Four,’ yet not cross that line and lose focus on why we’re here, which is to win a two-game tournament.”
“They’ve practiced well this week. They’ve practiced well since we’ve been in Houston, yet enjoyed some time with family and friends. We want them to do that.”
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You could see the differences in philosophy simply in the way the two teams took the floor during Friday’s open practice at NRG Stadium. Public Final Four practices are often glorified shootarounds, but while Villanova had timed segments of light drill work during their session, Oklahoma opted for more of a free-flowing practice that focused heavily on perimeter shooting. Villanova players were honed in on their efforts on the floor for most of the practice while Oklahoma players would occasionally look to the stands and share a moment with family or fans.
“Again, all this is great. It’s all grand. But the memories that these guys are taking from here are very special. The thing that I’m most excited about for them, because they’re here for a few days, but those memories are forever,” Kruger said. “They’ll think about each other every time they talk about the Final Four. They’ll think about the Final Four every time they talk to each other. I know how special that will be for them.”
It’s hard to say which mentality will lead to better results heading into the first game of the Final Four on Saturday, but both Kruger and Wright are trying to earn their first Final Four win as head coaches. They’re just going about their game preparation in dramatically different ways.
“It’s significantly bigger now,” Wright said of the Final Four. “So when we got together [in 2009], we were all trying. We just couldn’t get back focused again. So this time we’re just trying to stay together, eat all our meals together, stay in our rooms together.
“We got here early, hung out in the locker room together, rather than hanging out with our family and friends, taking everything in. We’re here to play a basketball game Saturday. Let’s make sure we’re at our best Saturday. That’s what we’re trying to do.”