NEW YORK– It’s hard to call a college team a dynasty. At most you can only have a player for five years (And even then there are caveats with that), it’s hard to sustain success at the college level for an extended period of time.
But that’s exactly what Jay Wright has done at Villanova.
Multiple players, multiple different styles of teams, each have a common denominator every year since 2014: Winning.
“The things that are consistent are high character,” Wright said, speaking about his different teams. “Intelligence and willingness to be coached. And more desire to be coached. And so they’re all different kind of players. But they all are intelligent. They have high character, and they want you to coach them and make them better. That’s rare. And we’re blessed to have those guys.”
This Villanova team is a little unique to the others. Of course, they wouldn’t be a Villanova team without the firepower capability to knock down some threes, but this is a more defensive team, ranking 28th in the country in scoring defense and first in the Big East.
But the redeeming quality from this team is that they are the best free throw shooting team in the nation, coming in at an absurd 82.3 percent from the line.
It’s a testament of their cool, calm and collected attitude.
“I think it’s just — we talk about it every day — keeping a good attitude and just grinding out, knowing that 40 minutes is a long game.” Villanova guard Collin Gillespie said. “And we have complete confidence in all our guys. We’re going to go out there and battle and try to play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes.”
It’s almost become a March tradition to see Villanova raise the Big East Tournament trophy in the middle of Madison Square Garden. Many teams have tried, most have failed. Unfortunately for Creighton, they were on the losing side again, losing a 54-48 slugfest. Villanova is 5-for-6 in Big East Tournament championship games since the league re-aligned in 2013-14.
“You go to the first round of the NCAA Tournament, it’s not like this.” Wright said. “And you’re not in this arena. And you’re not in New York City. This is a big jolt. This is big time. And we all know it and we feel it.”
It doesn’t get old either. Raising the trophy, cutting down the nets as Ol’ Blue Eyes ode to the city across the Hudson River blares through the MSG speakers.
“It’s an out-of-body experience.” Wright said. “Last night, when they were playing the National Anthem, the trumpet player, and I’m looking up and the place is packed and listening to that music. And the lights.”
“You take a second to think about that every now and then, and it is a surreal experience. You can’t believe you’re a part of it.” Wright added.
As for the game itself, it was a rock fight, a term Wright loves to use to describe low-scoring Big East games. Nobody was impressive shooting the rock, but late in the second half, Villanova’s lead guard, the guy who has knocked down big shot after big shot, came through in the clutch once again.
Gillespie drained two threes on back-to-back possessions to send the pro-Nova crowd in the Garden into a frenzy and at that moment, it felt like Villanova wasn’t relinquishing their lead.
“I look at it as no fear of failure.” Wright said. “He has no fear that if he misses those shots and we lose it’s not going to affect how he thinks of himself.”
“So he’s just playing with absolutely no fear because he knows he’s put the work in. He knows he’s got a great family that loves him. He knows his teammates love him. That’s what he cares about. Did I work hard? Did I prepare? Win or lose I’ll take the result. It’s a unique mindset. That’s what the great ones have.” Wright added.
“We’ve worked on these situations so many times in practices.” Gillespie said. “And we’ve been in close games where we’ve been in situations like that where Justin’s had to take a shot. Jermaine’s had to go make a play. Or I had to go make a play.”
“So I think it’s just playing together, trusting each other and having confidence in each other.” he added.
Gillespie went on to score a team-high 17 points. Justin Moore chipped in with 16.
Gillespie earned the Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player award to go along with his Big East Player of the Year and Big East scholar-athlete awards. He is the first player ever to take home all three in a season.
“I mean, for me I think it’s a lot of credit to my teammates and my coaches.” Gillespie said. “They push me every day in practice and games to just be the best version of myself. And a lot of that credit goes to those guys because they put me in position to be successful.”
“If you told me this five years ago, I would question you; but I’ve worked hard, and I don’t know if I would have believed you if you told me five years ago, but that’s just a credit to the staff and how hard they’ve pushed me and my teammates for having confidence in me.” he added.
After having no tournament in 2020 and then bowing out in the quarterfinals in 2021, this win means a little more for Wright and his team.
“This year — maybe because for two years we didn’t get to do it — it’s always a thrill. We gotta get ourselves settled down and get ready for the NCAA Tournament — not tonight, but tomorrow, because this is a thrill, man.” Wright said.