It’s different this time around. In a way it has been since that night last April in San Antonio, when the confetti popped and wafted down from the Alamodome ceiling and Jay Wright knew how the whole deal would play out. He knew what a national championship celebration entailed because he had partaken in one two years earlier, when Villanova had also won a title, and because of that experience, he now knew better how to navigate what came after. In 2016, he said yes to everything, smiling and waving in every direction, accepting all sorts of invitations to events and ceremonies, because each requestor told him that is what the national champions do.
This past spring and summer, no longer a novice at such things, Wright took control. When his team was invited to Philadelphia’s city hall, he stayed true to a recruiting schedule that had him on the road that day. When the Wildcats were feted at the state capitol on the same night Wright had committed to a university event, he opted for the latter. When they were invited to Los Angeles for the ESPYs in July, rather than again sending the whole roster as he had done in ‘16, Wright stayed east with his program’s five new players.
“You think you’re supposed to do everything that everyone tells you,” Wright says of the lessons learned from 2016. “You still need to take care of your team this year.”
It’s there that things most differ. Two falls ago Wright’s roster differed little from the one that had cut down the nets the previous spring, the departure of starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu somewhat eased—at least in terms of continuity—by the eligibility of guard Donte DiVincenzo and forward Eric Paschall, who had both redshirted during that championship run. Now Villanova enters the season as defending champion while facing its most significant roster churn in years, only a fraction of which it had planned for.
All last season guard Jalen Brunson (the eventual national player of the year) and wing Mikal Bridges were believed to be in their final years on campus, as even though they each retained a year of college eligibility, both would be completing their degrees and considered ready to begin their NBA careers. But in helping the Wildcats rampage through the NCAA tournament field, DiVincenzo—who turned in a star-making 31 points off the bench in the final—and redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman boosted their pro stock as well. When the pair decided to dip their toes into the NBA’s pre-draft waters, their coaches thought the two would get feedback from NBA folks but ultimately return to school, as neither were projected as likely first-round picks. “Then both of them killed it in their workouts,” Wright says. “And we knew they killed it.” Both signed agents and officially turned pro, joining Bridges and Brunson to give the Wildcats a quartet of players selected in the draft’s first 33 picks.
Which meant Wright and his staff had work to do. After years of having reliable groups of upperclassmen ascending into the stead of those who graduated, Wright suddenly had a roster that would be returning just two seniors (Paschall and guard Phil Booth) and zero juniors. The incoming class of freshmen was already strong, highlighted by point guard Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star former Arizona commit who sought a new school after the assistant who had recruited him there, Book Richardson, was arrested in last fall’s FBI probe into college basketball recruiting. (Quinerly’s name surfaced in the case but he and his family have denied any wrongdoing; Villanova cleared Quinerly’s eligibility after its own investigation.) But if Wright’s roster was now going to be so young—at least by his standards, if not most top programs’—it at least needed at late infusion of talent.
One came via familiar means: a highly touted prospect who had initially committed to a school later connected to the FBI corruption, in this case onetime North Carolina State signee Saddiq Bey. “He fell into our laps,” Wright says of the 6’ 8” forward. Villanova’s coaches had previously recruited Bey—who played at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., the alma mater of former Wildcats All-American Josh Hart—but backed off because they weren’t certain, given their projected roster composition, how he might fit into the program. Then, after DiVincenzo and Spellman departed this summer and Bey received his release from the Wolfpack, Wright says he got a call from one of Bey’s coaches asking if Villanova would still be interested. Says Wright, “We were like, Now? Hell yeah.”
The roster’s other late addition came through a method Wright had never previously utilized: the graduate transfer rule, which allows players who have graduated but remain eligible to transfer to a new school and play immediately. It’s not a rule Wright particularly likes—“I’m completely against it,” he says, smiling—but it was one that in this case he found too fitting to resist. In the spring, one of Wright’s assistant coaches had gotten a call about Joe Cremo, a first-team all-conference guard who was looking to leave Albany after finishing his degree in three years. Wright brought the 6’ 4” Cremo, who shot 45.8% from three last season, in for a visit and felt like he was spending time with one of his own. “He would probably be the same guy, the same kind of player, if he would have went through our program for three years,” Wright says.
When Cremo chose Villanova over Kansas, Texas and Creighton, he gave Wright another veteran presence to help set the tone on a younger-skewing roster as well as a heady player he could trust to play multiple spots on the perimeter. Although just when he will get to do so remains to be seen; a facial injury suffered during a scrimmage could force Cremo to miss some of the season’s early action. “We’re getting everything that we need out of it,” Wright says of Cremo’s transfer, referring to the influence he has already had within the program. “I want him to get everything that he wants out of it.”
Until then the only seniors at Wright’s disposal will be his two returnees, Booth and Paschall. Booth is the roster’s last true bridge to the 2016 championship, as he scored 20 points as a reserve in that title game; the 6’ 9” Paschall, an efficient and versatile scorer who redshirted that season after transferring from Fordham, is a popular pick to break out to potential All-America levels of production. Both excelled as complements in past seasons but will be relied upon to translate that effectiveness into lead roles the likes of which is rarely seen in a program that has become synonymous with balanced attacks that has set it apart from its competition. “We’re gonna be far more dependent on two guys,” Wright says. “Sort of like most teams.”
The “x-factor,” Wright says, is the sophomore class behind them, a group comprised of guard Collin Gillespie and forwards Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Dylan Painter. Their experience as freshmen varies: Gillespie and Cosby-Roundtree showed promise in stints while playing toward the back of last season’s rotation; Samuels was hampered by a broken hand; Painter, who redshirted last season, played sporadically two years ago. The last time Wright can remember leaning on underclassmen so heavily was in the 2002–03 and ‘03–04 seasons, his second and third at Villanova, when his first full recruiting classes—featuring eventual stars like Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Curtis Sumter—helped him establish the program. In those days, Wright says, he struggled to be patient while bringing his young core along.
“I was worried they weren’t gonna get there,” he says. “Whereas this year, I can kind of see that this group is.”
It’s an optimism befitting a coach coming off two titles in three years, who has a better idea than most what “getting there” involves. But it’s not the rose-colored glasses of a coach still basking in a championship glow. Wright says that he feels “like that’s over”—that this season is distinct from the one before it, unlike the way the 2016 title season spilled into the summer, ultimately carrying over into the following one and leaving the Wildcats “psychologically spent” by March, when they lost in the NCAA tournament’s second round. In that light, Wright is asked whether this roster turnover from last season could be a blessing.
“I’d rather have the same challenge we had in ‘16–17 and me do a better job as a coach,” Wright says with a laugh. “Because if we had Omari and Donte back, it’d be a whole ‘nother story. But given that we don’t, it is a totally different challenge, and it’s refreshing.”