Ever since Jay Wright came from Hofstra to his current post as the head coach at Villanova he has transformed the culture of Wildcat basketball. He has taken the program and turned it into a way of life in the greater Philadelphia area.
Recently though, Nova has been down the past couple of years, finishing no higher than seventh in the BIG EAST Conference in the past four seasons. Nova has also not won more than 21 games since reaching the Final Four in 2009.
That’s why it didn’t come as a shock when this year’s team wasn’t really talked about this preseason, despite being part the new BIG EAST Conference. Nova was placed at fourth in the preseason polls, and received no first place votes.
This season has been a road to redemption for the Cats, who currently sit at 20-2, and 8-1 in the BIG EAST. They are tied for first place in the conference with BIG EAST newcomer Creighton, and the regular season title could come down to the February 16 matchup in Omaha. This has all come while playing the nation’s 14th toughest schedule.
Now, after not receiving only 14 votes in the preseason top 25, Wright has the Wildcats sitting at No. 6 in the AP Polls, and yet no one is talking about them. Instead, the rough and tough Big Ten, undefeated teams such as Wichita State and Syracuse, and one of the most highly toted freshman classes in NCAAB history are catching much of the mass media’s attention.
Yet quietly, Wright has done about as great of a job as any coach in the nation. The Wildcats have shown vast improvements in almost every aspect of the game. They’ve moved up from sixth in the conference in rebounding to second (36.3-38.2), from eighth in the conference in scoring to second (67.8-80.9), and from twelfth in the conference in field goal percentage to third (41.5%-46.2%). Some of this can be attributed to the level of play in the new BIG EAST, but much of it can also be attributed to Wright helping his players adjust to a completely different style of play that a new conference offers.
Now there are a couple of other guys who have garnered a lot of the early Coach of the Year talk. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim who is currently at the helm of No.1 ranked team in the nation. Wichita State’s Greg Marshall, who might just be on his way to leading the Shockers’ to their first undefeated regular season in school history, has also been the talk of college basketball. As of late Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, who, much like Wright has taken a team from out of nowhere and turned into a top 10 program, has received a ton of Coach of the Year praise.
Looking forward though, I think Wright still has the optimal path to the Coach of the Year Award. Syracuse did start at No.8 nationally, so while what Boeheim has done is impressive, it is with a preseason top-10 team. Plus, the ACC is just too stacked for the Orange to run the conference table. What Marshall has done at Wichita is also impressive, and his chances of winning out are pretty good. Yet if you look at the Shockers’ strength of schedule, it’s 91st nationally for a team that began the season ranked 16th in the AP Poll. I just don’t see Marshall winning the award with how weak of a schedule that his Shockers have played. With Cronin, what he has done so far has maybe been more impressive than everyone else in the running. His schedule down the stretch gets tough, as he has to play four ranked teams in the last eight games, plus an SMU team that has been rejuvenated under Larry Brown. I see his team losing at least twice and taking him out of the running in the Coach of the Year race.
Now if you look at Villanova’s schedule, it’s very favorable, and the only possibility of a loss that sticks out is the previously mentioned showdown at Creighton. If that is the case, Villanova would finish at 28-3 and achieve the best regular season winning percentage in the Jay Wright era. The current team with that honor is the 2005-06 squad who finished 24-3. That year, Jay Wright won the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award, and that was a team that was ranked in the preseason top four nationally. If Wright can lead his current Wildcats team to a better winning percentage, I just don’t see any way to keep the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award out of Villanova, PA any longer.