Neptune ready to keep Villanova elite as Wright’s successor

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PHILADELPHIA – Jay Wright patted his chest in appreciation of the cheering crowd before he threw a first pitch to Phillies manager Joe Girardi. Wright then took the ball from Girardi, hustled back and handed it to Kyle Neptune so the new Villanova coach could lob his own ceremonial strike.

Wright’s call to the bullpen worked great on a lazy Sunday night.

Now comes the part where every game is the bottom of the ninth for the 37-year-old Neptune as he succeeds the retired Wright: Can a longtime assistant with one season of head coaching experience keep Villanova humming along as a perennial Big East Conference champion with Final Four expectations?

Neptune certainly knows Wright’s blueprint following a lengthy stint that started in 2008 as a video coordinator and ended with him as the longest-tenured member on the coaching staff that won the 2016 and 2018 national championships.

“He knows it all. He has the answers to the test,” Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson said.

Neptune was mapping out Fordham’s season and was headfirst into recruiting when he got the call early last week that Wright had made the shocking decision to retire. The hiring process was short: Neptune talked with Villanova’s key decision-makers – sounding less like a formal interview and more like a confirmation hearing – and was named just the program’s sixth coach since 1938.

Neptune already had recruited or coached most of the players on Villanova’s roster and already was colleagues with the assistant coaches he said would stay on staff. George Halcovage, Mike Nardi and Dwayne Anderson have spent years with Neptune.

“I don’t think he thinks of himself as the boss. I think he wants to feel like one of the guys, like he’s always done,” said Nardi, who also played under Wright. “The only thing that’s going to change is he’s got to make the final decision.”

Taking over for a Hall of Famer is rarely easy. The Wildcats are a top team seemingly every season, and they went to their fourth Final Four under Wright this season after winning the Big East Tournament.

One knock on Wright is a coaching tree with cracks in the trunk. Pat Chambers, Ashley Howard, Baker Dunleavy, Tom Pecora, Joe Jones and Billy Lange are among Wright’s former assistants who never reached the NCAA Tournament as head coaches. Neptune went 16-16 in his lone season at Fordham, an Atlantic 10 program with just four NCAA Tournament appearances.

“That’s where our assistants struggle,” Wright said. “They learn here there’s no place like this place. There’s so many great things about this place that don’t kind of fit at other places.”

Wright did wonder about staying for another season, but what if Neptune had a losing record at Fordham? Wright knew the sales job would only get harder, so he suggested a successor with deep Villanova ties coming off what could only be considered a successful season for a downtrodden Fordham program.

“It’s not like the old days where the coach just picks his guy,” Wright said. “You’ve got to do it in concert with the university.”

A native of Brooklyn, Neptune played four seasons at Lehigh and served as a team captain in his senior year of 2006-07. He briefly played overseas, but a coaching career tugged at him. Wright hired him as a low-salary, long-hour, little-appreciated video coordinator.

“Back then, the technology wasn’t what it was now. It was a lot of breaking down film, long hours of scouting reports,” he said.

Neptune is the seventh Black head coach in the Big East, but the first one at a university that is roughly 70% white.

“I’m thrilled for any example that I could be to young, especially younger, African Americans in general, but also young males, that are coming up in the coaching world; I’m excited to be an ambassador in that regard,” Neptune said. “I hope that this trend continues.”

Wright was known as GQ Jay for his custom-made suits but he moved to casual sweats during the pandemic. Neptune wore a suit at Fordham – a look that fit him as well as the title of head coach. Now the man gets to try both on for size at Villanova.

“We’ve got everything here. We’ve got the leadership. Everything is in place,” Wright said. “So now it’s going to be, you’re going to come to play for Kyle, but also this culture is going to stay the same.”

Wright cites lost ‘edge’ in surprise Villanova retirement

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Typically unflappable in the spotlight, Jay Wright choked back tears several times as he discussed his sudden retirement at Villanova, saying he no longer had “the edge” he needed to continue coaching at a championship level.

The 60-year-old Wright shocked college basketball this week with his retirement from the Big East program he led to two national championships and four Final Fours in a Hall of Fame career. His last game was a loss this season in the Final Four.

He went 520-197 in 21 seasons at the school and turned the program over to his former assistant coach, Kyle Neptune.

Wright said Friday he contemplated retirement here and there over the last several seasons but knew down the stretch of this this past one it was definitively his last. Wright said he considered himself officially retired from all levels of coaching.

“I started to feel like I didn’t have the edge that I’ve always had,” Wright said. “The edge always came natural to me. So I started evaluating. I would never have to think about anything. I started to think like, I have to get myself fired up here. Let’s go. … We couldn’t ask the players, you’ve got to give 100% and I’m giving 70%. I just knew it was the right time.”

Wright said he told his inner circle at Villanova at the end of the regular season he was retiring.

Wright will remain at Villanova and stay involved in fundraising, advising, education and more. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.

Wright needed three years to build a foundation before Villanova broke through with a trip to the 2005 Sweet 16. An Elite Eight appearance followed the next year and the Wildcats reached the Final Four in 2009.

Villanova won its first national title under Wright in 2016 on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater and rolled over the NCAA Tournament field in 2018, winning every game by double digits on its way to the national title.

He was selected AP coach of the decade in 2020.

“I’ve always felt like it’s a run. And when you’re on top of it and you’re grinding and if you’ve got the edge in your head, you do it,” he said.

Wright felt like that run had finally reached the finish line.

Wright resigns as Villanova coach, Neptune takes over

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PHILADELPHIA — Jay Wright shocked college basketball with his immediate resignation at Villanova, the Big East program he led to two national championships and four Final Fours in a Hall of Fame career.

The 60-year-old Wright guided Villanova to titles in 2016 and 2018 and just led the Wildcats to the Final Four, where they lost to national champion Kansas. He went 520-197 in 21 seasons at the school and 642-282 overall, also coaching Hofstra from 1994-2001.

“It’s time for us to enter a new era of Villanova basketball,” Wright said in a statement. “After 35 years in coaching, I am proud and excited to hand over the reins to Villanova’s next coach. I am excited to remain a part of Villanova and look forward to working with (Villanova) and the rest of the leadership team.”

Kyle Neptune, who served on the Villanova coaching staff before accepting the head coaching position at Fordham in 2021, returned to replace Wright.

“When looking for a successor, we wanted a candidate who could navigate the changing landscape of collegiate athletics and keep Villanova in a position of strength – now and in the future,” Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson said. “After meeting with several exceptional candidates, we found all those attributes and more in Kyle Neptune. Kyle quickly stood out for his basketball knowledge, recruiting savvy and natural ability to connect with student-athletes and coaches.”

Wright’s decision was unexpected and there was no immediate word the move was health related or that he was leaving for the NBA. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021.

Wright will remain at Villanova and stay involved in fundraising, advising, education and more.

He joined North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as the third coach with multiple championship to step down over the last two years.

Before he arrived, Villanova was known for upsetting Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game and the occasional trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Wright needed three years to build a foundation before Villanova broke through with a trip to the 2005 Sweet 16. An Elite Eight appearance followed the next year and the Wildcats reached the Final Four in 2009.

Villanova won its first national title under Wright in 2016 on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater and decimated the NCAA Tournament field in 2018, winning every game by double digits on its way to the national title.

He was selected AP coach of the decade in 2020.

The 37-year-old Neptune was on Wright’s staff for the 2009 Final Four team, then later spent three seasons as an assistant at Niagara before he returned to the Wildcats in 2013. He went 16-16 in his lone season at Fordham.

“I think he’s more ready to be a head coach than most young guys X’s and O’s-wise and I think he’s got great character, great leadership skills, I think he’s going to be an outstanding head coach,” Wright said when Neptune was hired at Fordham.

Wright’s decision comes after another successful season:

– He reached 25 or more victories for the 10th time in his 22 seasons.

– The Wildcats have won a regular-season or postseason conference championship in each of the nine seasons since the Big East reconfigured in 2013.

– The Wildcats earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time under Wright.

During Wright’s tenure, he coached several future NBA stars, including Kyle Lowry, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Saddiq Bey.

“Ohhhhhhh thats tough !!! (at)kyleneptune WELL DESERVED,” Bridges, now a star with the Phoenix Suns, tweeted.

Wright was hired as head coach at Hofstra and went 207-122 with two NCAA Tournament appearances in seven seasons. Hired in 2001 to replace Steve Lappas, the Wildcats went to the NIT in Wright’s first three seasons.

“Simply a remarkable career,” said former Villanova AD Vince Nicastro, who hired Wright. “Will be regarded as one of the best coaches in college basketball history – and even better person. Has won with integrity, class and grace. And has served as a great role model for his players and colleagues.”

The Wildcats finished 30-8 this season and Wright’s final game was an 81-65 loss to Kansas in the Final Four.

Wright, a Churchville, Pennsylvania native, played college basketball at Bucknell and started as an assistant at Rochester and Drexel. He spent five seasons at Villanova as Rollie Massimino’s assistant, then followed him to UNLV for another two years before taking the head coaching job at Hofstra in 1994.

He rejected numerous NBA and other college overtures through the years and remained steadfast in his dedication to the Wildcats. Wright had stints coaching teams in the Pan American Games and World University Games; and served as an assistant coach under San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for Team USA.

Wright was scheduled to discuss his decision at a press conference on Friday.

Villanova’s injured Moore gets warm welcome at Final Four

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NEW ORLEANS — An enduring image of the NCAA Final Four will be Villanova coach Jay Wright sitting on the bench with his arm around injured starting guard Justin Moore shortly before tip-off of the Wildcats’ semifinal matchup against Kansas.

His absence from the court was conspicuous during the first half, when Kansas quickly jumped out to a double-digit lead while Villanova’s offense looked stagnant.

Moore was a second-team All-Big East selection this season. The 6-foot-4 Moore averaged 34.4 minutes, 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per outing in 36 games. But he tore his Achilles in the final minute of Villanova’s regional final victory win over Houston last weekend.

Moore was dribbling against a defender and appeared to slip and fall. He then went back down after trying to get up.

Before the game, Moore spoke about the emotional support he’s been receiving from his family, Villanova and beyond.

“It was great for me personally. I needed people by my side. I was feeling hurt and down,” Moore said. “Them saying they love me and they have my back and giving encouraging words, that really helped me.”

Well-wishers have included NBA star Kevin Durant, who experienced a similar injury while playing for Golden State in 2019.

“He called me right away. He facetimed me,” Moore said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I was still a little bit off from the medicine. That, right there, kind of snapped me out of it. It was a great feeling.”

“He was telling me that my career isn’t over. It’s just begun,” Moore continued. “An injury like this, a torn Achilles, you can come back from it. In previous years, people would think your career is over, but he was letting me know that my career isn’t over. He said I can always hit him up for advice.”

Moore also described his recollections of the moment the injury happened.

‘It was really nerve-wracking and hard for me. We were winning that game and playing great basketball as a team and going into the Final Four,” Moore said. “People saw me crying and stuff. It was a lot of emotions going through. I had to sit back and take it all in.

“My family was there and my teammates were there to help me. If I didn’t have them by my side, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”

CHURCH STATEMENT

Country singer Eric Church took considerable heat in San Antonio for postponing a sold out concert in the city on Saturday night so he could go to the Final Four instead.

Church is a North Carolina native and has been a lifelong Tar Heels fan. And he wasn’t going to miss North Carolina’s historic first NCAA Tournament clash against in-state rival Duke in the national semifinals.

Earlier Saturday, Church issued a public statement in which he thanked his fans in San Antonio for “letting me take my family to this game.”

“It took a minute to figure out how and when I could properly express my thanks,” Church said in the statement, who added that his way of doing so would be to hold a concert on Sept. 2 at the Whitewater Amphitheater in New Braunfels. He described it as a “one of a kind free show for those of you who bought tickets and were planning to attend our cancelled San Antonio show.”

Final Four fans flock to dome in return of open practices

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NEW ORLEANS — Wearing Duke and North Carolina gear, a family with split loyalties lined up outside the Superdome a little after 9 a.m. Friday, nearly an hour before fans were allowed in the stadium for open practices at the Final Four.

The moment they entered the stadium, 14-year-old Brody Owen, wearing a white Tar Heels jersey, ran ahead into the concourse and down the long staircase of the court-level stands to the first few rows behind the bench, where he saved seats for other family members.

Before long, several thousand fans – many wearing gear from all four semifinal teams, and some in business attire who had strolled over from nearby office towers during lunch – filled the vast lower-level stands behind the benches.

The open practices, which were free and held without attendance restrictions, marked the beginning of full fan participation in Final Four activities for the first time since the 2019 NCAA Tournament – the last before the COVID-19 pandemic.

And this year’s open practices had an added curiosity factor; it was one of the last chances to see Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – who’ll retire as the NCAA’s all-time leader in victories this season – directing the Blue Devils in person.

The practices didn’t begin until late morning, starting with Villanova, followed by Kansas, North Carolina and finally Duke. But Duke fans Denise and Steve Simpson, their daughter, Stephanie Owen (a UNC fan), and grandchildren Kylee Hartupee and Brody Owen were happy to sit through two practices before the teams they really came to see took the floor.

“We brought our granddaughter for her high school graduation; she’d never seen Coach K because of COVID,” said Denise Simpson, referring to Hartupee, 17, who was wearing a Duke jersey. “We decided this was as good as it was going to get.”

Steve and Denise Simpson are college basketball junkies from St. Louis who’ve long rooted for Missouri, but transformed into ardent Duke supporters when Chris Carrawell, who is also from St. Louis, played for the Blue Devils in the late 1990s.

But Stephanie, who played youth basketball, loved Michael Jordan. Although she was too young to remember his college career, he was the reason she developed an enduring affinity for the Tar Heels.

Her son followed suit, and Stephanie Owen said they were well aware that the Superdome was also the place where Jordan made a game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA finals “that changed him from Mike to Michael.”

They all came to New Orleans without tickets because they knew that with pandemic restrictions being recently lifted in New Orleans, they’d at least get to see the open practice and check out the Fan Fest in the nearby convention center.

“It’s so fan friendly,” Denise Simpson said. “This is phenomenal. If you can’t get to a game, this is the very next best thing. You get to see them come out and shoot around and just have fun.”

An while they’d been waiting in line, they found tickets for Saturday night’s semifinals. They’ll be sitting together when Duke and UNC clash for the first time in an NCAA Tournament in the second semifinal game.

“I love them,” Denise Simpson said of Stephanie and Brody Owen, “Even if they have bad taste.”

HOMETOWN FAVORITE

Villanova guard Caleb Daniels grew up in New Orleans and is getting a lot of attention – and local support – as he tries to lead the Wildcats to a title in the stadium where his family came for Saints games or Bayou Classic festivities such as the “Battle of the Bands.”

For Daniels’ parents, Roland and Connie, this is a whole new way to enjoy the hulking, downtown stadium that’s been a regular part of their lives.

Now their son will be competing on the elevated court built at the center of 70,000-plus seats ringing the action on three levels.

“He’s on stage where he’s part of what’s going on,” Roland Daniels said after Villanova’s open practice in the dome. “To have everybody from New Orleans to support him. It’s a huge deal.”

Caleb Daniels played at St. Augustine High School, where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

He started his college career at Tulane before transferring.

Growing up in New Orleans Daniels liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed and wedding cake-flavored snowballs.

Just not lately.

His parents noted their son is serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” home.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

ALL-STAR GAME

Kentucky coach John Calipari was sitting near the sidelines during the college all-star game after attending the award ceremony for AP Player of the Year and Wildcats rebounding leader Oscar Tshiebwe.

Calipari was there to watch Kentucky guard Davion Mintz, who scored seven points for the West Squad that lost 115-103 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Reese’s Division I All-Star game, held in the Superdome after the four open practices.

High-scorers in the game for the East squad were UConn guard Tyrese Martin with 22 points, Buffalo forward Jeenathan Williams with 18, George Mason forward D’Shawn Schwartz with 15, Richmond forward Grant Golden with 14 and UConn guard R.J. Cole with 13 points.

New Orleans guard Derek St. Hilaire led the West squad with 16 points, Michigan State forward Gabe Brown added 14 points, while West Virginia guard Taz Sherman, Kansas State guard Mark Smith and Cal State Fullerton forward E.J. Anosike each scored 13.

Smith also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Daniels’ parents were escorted down to the floor for practice and received hugs from Villanova players and coaches.

They said they’ve also been receiving many calls and messages from well-wishers from across the city and especially at Caleb Daniels’ high school, St. Augustine – the same school where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

They’ve even heard from old acquaintances at Tulane, where Daniels played under former coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. before transferring.

“They’re excited for him,” Connie Daniels said. “The fan base was sorry to lose him, but they were still cheering for him.”

When Daniels was growing up in New Orleans, he liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed with hot sauce from Parran’s (a French Creole word for ‘godfather”), and snowballs, made of fine shaved ice infused with sweet liquid flavors, but softer and smoother than the snow cones found in much of America. He would get the wedding cake flavor with vanilla soft serve ice cream mixed in.

His parents noted, however, that Daniels is very serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” to his hometown.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

Villanova’s Justin Moore has torn Achilles tendon

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Villanova guard and second-leading scorer Justin Moore will undergo surgery this week for a torn Achilles tendon, a brutal blow for the Wildcats ahead of their Final Four game with Kansas.

Moore was a second-team All-Big East selection this season. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 34.4 minutes, 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per outing in 36 games.

Moore was injured in the final minute of Villanova’s regional final victory win over Houston on Saturday night and was on crutches during the Wildcats’ postgame celebration. He was dribbling against a defender and appeared to slip and fall. Moore then went back down after trying to get up.

The Wildcats are playing for their third national championship since 2016.

“This is a tough blow for all of us, not just because of the great player Justin is, but because of what he means to us as teammates and coaches,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement Sunday. “As one of our captains, Justin has been an integral part of our success. He helps our team in so many ways. Every game, he guards the opponent’s best scorer and is one of the toughest rebounding guards we have had in our time at Villanova.”