By Jim Weber
Villanova head coach Jay Wright was the media darling of college basketball just three years ago at the 2009 Final Four in Detroit.
Being a Philadelphia guy through and through, the world was Wright’s, uh, cheese steak, as he appeared on the cusp of head coaching super stardom at the age of just 47.
But a funny thing has happened since then: Wright’s program that he built from the ground up has imploded.
Dating back to the middle of the 2010-11 season, Wright is a Steve Lappas-esque 25-34 with the Wildcats. After missing the postseason entirely last March, this season has started off with a thud. The Wildcats are currently a meager 7-4 with blowout losses to Alabama, Temple and Columbia (yes, Columbia) and a choke job against La Salle.
So how have things gone so wrong so fast on the Main Line? Here are the three main reasons:
#1: Talent Disappearance
Wright has always been known as a smooth operator on the recruiting trail, and it’s shown with the surplus of quality players that have come through his program – especially at the guard position. During Wright’s 11 years at ‘Nova, he has churned out the likes of Scottie Reynolds, Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi, Allan Ray and Corey Fisher.
It’s not that Wright has stopped landing blue-chip players in the last couple years, it’s that they just haven’t panned out. F Isaiah Armwood (No. 62 overall recruit in 2009) and G Tyrone Johnson (No. 52, 2011) are no longer with the team. Others, like Maalik Wayns (No. 26, 2009), Dominic Cheek (No. 30, 2009), James Bell (No. 42, 2010), and Mouphtaou Yarou (No. 10, 2009), were not nearly as good as advertised (obviously, Wright takes at least some of the blame for this).
So when Wayns and Cheek both made head-scratching decisions to turn pro early after last season, the writing was on the wall for what kind of 2012-13 season the Wildcats would have.
#2: Assistant Drain
Wright also has a great eye when it comes to talent among assistant coaches. The “Jay Wright Coaching Tree” already includes Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers, Columbia’s Joe Jones, former Rutgers head coach Fred Hill and ex-Navy head man Billy Lange.
But Wright has had a hard time replenishing his staff in recent years.
Wright shook up two of his three assistant positions in the offseason in an attempt to reenergize the program, but even that blew up in his face when it was discovered that newly hired high school and AAU coach Doug Martin had pulled a George O’Leary on his resume. Now Wright is stuck with Lange, who returned to Philly last season, Raphael Chillious, who was seemingly hired for his recruiting connections rather than coaching ability, and first-year former player Baker Dunleavy.
That’s not exactly a who’s who of assistant coaches.
#3: In-Game Coaching Failures
Wright has never been known as a master strategist on the bench and the first two problems have really exposed his weakness as a game-day coach. Over and over again, Villanova has blown second-half leads in the last couple seasons like they did in loss to La Salle on Nov. 25 after leading by 11. Among the coaching community, Wright appears to have little respect. An anonymous CBS Sports coaches poll last August called Wright the fifth-most overrated coach in the country and one peer confessed, “I’ll tell you this about Villanova and Jay Wright. In all our prep over the years, he’s the only coach we never prepared a scouting report for.” Ouch.
You can say Wright is a victim of his own success at Villanova after building the program back up to a national title contender. But with the Big East once again loaded with Top 25 teams, it appears the Wildcats are headed for another losing season. With the current trajectory of the program and in a town as impatient as Philadelphia, Wright won’t be around much longer if he doesn’t address these problems.
Photo: Jim O’Conner: USA Today Sports