VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Jay Wright slipped in and out of his competitive consciousness in the national championship game. He cringed as a coach as Villanova’s late lead trickled away against North Carolina. He loved the frenzy as a basketball fan watching the Wildcats and Tar Heels go shot-for-shot in one of the NCAA Tournament’s classic finals.
“This is what it’s like when you’re in the final and playing the best team in the country,” Wright said. “Little times it hits you like, wow, this is a great game.”
Little times. Like when North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit a double-clutch 3 to tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left.
“When Paige hit that shot, I had a second or two to think, this game is unbelievable and it could go into overtime and make it even more amazing,” Wright said.
Oh, the game got more amazing – no overtime necessary.
Kris Jenkins squashed the OT bid with a shot forever engraved as the biggest one in Villanova – heck, maybe March Madness – history. Jenkins spotted up behind the right side of the arc and buried a 3 at the buzzer to deliver Villanova to a 77-74 victory.
A miracle shot? Not quite. The Wildcats practiced that play for years and used a variation to reach the 2009 Final Four. The Wildcats were squashed by the Tar Heels in `09 and crashed into a March funk that lingered until last season.
With a championship banner to match one from 1985 nestled in the Pavilion rafters, the Wildcats must now hope that championship revelry doesn’t equate to a follow-up hangover.
The Wildcats suffered from a whopper following the 2009 run. The Wildcats dropped from 30 wins in 2009 to 25, 21 and then bottomed out at 13-19 and no postseason in 2011-12. Wright could not say no to friends or speaking engagements in the immediate aftermath of 2009 and the program seemed to waver from its recruiting foundation. He chased McDonald’s All-Americans or transfers who didn’t necessarily fit the program and it took a few seasons to stabilize.
“There were definitely times at the end of that, it was spiraling,” Wright said. “It really didn’t affect us until a couple of years later. I knew it then. … We were really preparing for that this time.”
As distractions mounted, Wright vowed this summer to stay connected to his family, players, coaches and recruits. Yes, there were stops at the ESPYs and a trip to the White House, but the big picture of staying focused on this season and beyond was not lost on Wright. Wright, 354-157 with two Final Fours in 15 seasons at Villanova, reigned in his commitments even as charities and corporations wanted a piece of the championship `Cat.
Wright tightened control this summer and even closed down the basketball office for a week in August for the first time so the entire staff could relax and regroup.
“I’ve had to say no to a lot of people, and I’ve probably disappointed a lot of people and I feel bad about that, I really do,” he said. “But the last time, I felt like it was my responsibility as the Villanova coach to do everything I was asked to do at Villanova. I did it. It got a little out of control. No, it got out of control.”
The Wildcats had not advanced out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2009 and lost two straight seasons in the opening round as a 1 or 2 seed.
In March, they were in a pressure spot again: a No. 2 seed about to play pesky Iowa with a Sweet 16 berth at stake and a potential burden lifted. Wright sensed pressure had seeped into the Big East powerhouse’s environment.
“Our fans were tense. Our families were tense. The Philadelphia media was tense,” Wright said.
Wright couldn’t even break that tension with his confidants. Wright likes to linger in the locker room during pregame warmups and talk life with Villanova’s team chaplain and sports psychologist. All Wright found were a bundle of nerves under the collar of Rev. Rob Hagan.
“I could even sense he was nervous for me,” Wright said, laughing. “This is big.”
The Wildcats instead cruised past Iowa. They followed with wins over Miami and Kansas, crushed Oklahoma by 44 in the Final Four and made first-weekend flops a distant memory.
“They didn’t fear that failure,” Wright said. “But everyone else did. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little bit of concern for them. I was not worried about it. But I was worried for them and everyone else.”
The Wildcats quickly learned being called champs comes with more than a ring and a banner. It means mingling with the president and getting hounded for autographs and photos on social outings.
“I definitely feel like we’re treated differently,” Wright said. “I can see it. I can feel it. All the time. I don’t want to be different. I enjoyed the way we were doing it. Even losing in the second round, I was loving those teams.”
So the question looms, armed with a heap of expectations, can Villanova repeat?
“We could,” Wright said. “But we could lose to anybody again. We’ve made it true. We’ve lost to everybody and we’ve won it all. But I think we’re good enough.”
Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, preseason All-American Josh Hart and the rest of the returning core should keep the Wildcats on track to try and become college basketball’s first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.
Villanova President Rev. Peter Donohue bellowed to fans last week at a kickoff celebration that “Villanova is going to do it again!”
“That’s pressure from the boss!” Wright said with a smile over the house mic.
Again the Big East favorites and ranked fourth in the AP preseason Top 25, the Wildcats won’t judge this season on a banner-or-bust scale.
“The only way we can top that or be better than that is to be the best team we can be by the end of the year,” Jenkins said. “If that wins us another national championship, then cool.”
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