Villanova Prefers to Forget About Last Year’s Title, Even If Fans Are Hoping For A Repeat

The defending national champs are looking to become the first team to repeat since 2007. But they're going about their business differently this year.

Jay Wright Villanova Creighton 2017
USA Today Sports

Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright shouts instructions to his team in the game against the Creighton Bluejays at CenturyLink Center Omaha.

Jay Wright Villanova Creighton 2017

Thirty-one years after playing “The Perfect Game” to capture the program’s first national title, and two straight years of disappointing second-round exits in the NCAA Tournament, Villanova returned to the top of the sport last April with “The Perfect Ending.”

Kris Jenkins was the hero that night in Houston, hitting an amazing 30-foot three-pointer as time expired to stun North Carolina, providing the ultimate highlight for the tearjerking “One Shining Moment” montage played after the conclusion of every national championship game.

But when asked about how his life changed since hitting the most clutch three in college basketball history, Jenkins, the Wildcats’ burly 23-year-old 6’6” senior forward and third-leading scorer, said it was not the defining moment of his life as many would expect. “Off the court, it changed a lot,” says Jenkins. “It’s just that people notice me more. As far as getting better on the court, it did nothing for me. It could only hurt me just thinking about The Shot.” 

The positives are the accolades, and the negatives are the accolades. If I stop and think about the accolades that I’ve won or am in the running for, it could end tomorrow."

Learning lessons from the past and, just as important, forgetting about their achievements while understanding that they are bigger, better, newer targets are crucial for the No. 1 seed Wildcats as they begin another march toward the Final Four starting Thursday against No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s. Their team motto is “humble and hungry” and it keeps Jenkins and his teammates grounded, as explained by their head coach Jay Wright in his recently published book Attitude: Develop a Winning Mindset on and Off the Court. With this mentality and approach to their competition, the Wildcats are looking to become the NCAA’s first repeat champion since Florida in 2007.

“Attitude is how we live,” says Josh Hart, Villanova’s leading scorer. “It’s more than just basketball. It’s about approach and react to certain situations. You can’t always control everything. You’re going to have bad breaks, but it’s how you react to them. That’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve taken from coach Wright.”

The suave and debonair Wright has compiled a 507-245 career record, with a .706 winning percentage as Villanova’s head coach. He is not as boisterous as his mentor, 2017 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction nominee Rollie Massimino, the man who famously led Villanova to the national title in 1985 over heavily favored Georgetown. Wright was on Massimino’s coaching staff from 1987-1992 at Villanova, where Massimino became known for his short, rotund body frame, frazzled hair, and emotionally charged barks while flailing his arms. In contrast, Wright dons GQ-worthy suits and maintains poised body language—as evidenced by his stoic reaction to Jenkins’ championship-winning shot—with a charming approach to coaching. 


Wright’s composure is seemingly learned from his earlier days when he took on his first head coaching job at Hofstra in 1994. He initially endured three straight losing seasons, and his coaching style was heavily predicated on game strategy and stringent adherence to his playbook, with his players expected to strictly adopt the same mentality. After he changed his and the team’s modus operandi to learn from, rather than focus on, their in-game failures, Wright found success and his coaching stock rose to become a two-time America East Coach of the Year, earn two NCAA Tournament berths, and eventually move on to Villanova.

After returning to his Philadelphia-area origins as the head coach in 2001, he applied his psychology for success to rebuild a mediocre team into a Big East powerhouse. Since then, he’s earned two National Coach of the Year awards in 2006 and 2016, five Big East Coach of the Year awards, and two Final Four appearances, and produced nine NBA players.

Wright articulates his seemingly undeterred thought process with his signature half-smile and stoic disposition. He knows the pressure of pundits predicting his team to repeat and the undeniable challenges that lie ahead. “There’s pressure, but we’ve had different kinds of pressure,” says Wright. “Losing in the second round a couple years in a row, that was pressure. I think our guys are used to that. It’s a different kind each time. It’s there, but I don’t think that pressure bothers them.”

Villanova’s run to the title last year also alleviated some pressure felt by the new-look Big East. When the conference began to dissolve in 2013, newly hired commissioner Val Ackerman had the daunting task of restructuring the league into a basketball-focused conference again. While some might foolishly say Villanova saved the Big East, Ackerman does believe Nova’s title “quieted down some of the naysayers who weren’t sure that this new group of schools could be anything like the old league.”

Josh Hart Villanova Madison Square Garden 2017

Villanova’s success is predicated on Wright reminding his players there’s more to life than X’s and O’s and winning another title. “We share each other’s views, and I tell them on my end, ‘My mind is in a lot different place than yours. When it’s me telling you something, it’s not telling you what you should think. It’s not something I want to know, I need to know. Teach me what you guys think and I can share some of my experiences with you. But I’m not trying to influence you as much in those areas.’ Basketball is what they need to learn from me.”

Wright has instilled a blue-collar mentality in his players, commanding they run an uptempo style on offense while emphasizing defense just like the Big East teams of yore. According to KenPom, they’re the No. 2 ranked team in adjusted offensive efficiency—the number of points scored per 100 possessions. While they eschew the flash of teams like Kansas, Kentucky, and UCLA for substance, many of the players are versatile and thrive at making the extra pass to get a teammate a better shot. But they also excel on the defensive end. Since their third loss in February to Butler, the Wildcats have only allowed their opponents to score 59.6 points per game, and held them to 0.85 points per possession.

Now with a 31-3 record, the most wins for a defending national champion entering the NCAA Tournament, how does Hart, a Wooden Award semi-finalist, the Big East’s Player of the Year as well as the league’s co-Defensive Player of the Year with teammate Bridges, lead his team back to the Final Four?

“The positives are the accolades, and the negatives are the accolades,” says Hart. “If I stop and think about the accolades that I’ve won or am in the running for, it could end tomorrow. Right now, it’s not about me going out there and getting 20. It’s more about me getting out there and making the right play. A lot of times, it’s not going to be me forcing up a shot.”

Despite being proficient at scouting their opponents, executing game plans, working arduously in practice, and following a comparatively intense system for the players’ bodies to recover from a long season, Wright believes his team understands what it takes to repeat as champions.

“We take basketball very seriously,” Wright added. “We’re in practice, games, locker room, and we’re all business. If you’re a competitor, fun is seriously taking yourself to your highest level. That’s fun. We want to compete because this is the game we love.”

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