On the verge of tying Al Severance’s school record 413 wins, Jay Wright realized there was some unfinished business in Villanova’s 97-73 whooping of Patrick Ewing Georgetown Hoyas Saturday. He needed to get Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges out of the game, so that the Wildcats’ faithful could salute their stars one last time. Because even though both are considered juniors and have a year of eligibility left it’s all but certain they’ll soon be heading to the NBA.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be their last game,” said Wright, who called a timeout with :59 left to lift Brunson, then had freshman Collins Gillespie deliberately throw the ball out of bounds 23 seconds later to give Bridges his curtain call. “But they do have a choice, which is nice. Both are graduating. So they’ve got a degree. They’ve got pro prospects. In my mind, they should go.”
For their part both were noncommittal, even saying they missed playing at the Pavilion this season, which is being renovated, which forced Nova to play its home games at the Wells Fargo Center. The 27-4 Cats went 11-1 there, the only glitch coming against St. John’s.
That plus road losses to Butler, Providence and Creighton cost Nova the Big East regular season, even though they beat first place Xavier by 24 and 16 points respectively. That makes them No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament, meaning they’ll take on the Marquette-DePaul winner Thursday.
A win there will not only move them into Friday’s semifinals against the Creighton-Butler winner, but give Wright a record he never could’ve imagined when he left Hofstra to take over from Steve Lappas in 2001.
“It’s such a thrill for me to be the Villanova coach that I really can’t put my grasp around it,” said Wright, who’ll receive the John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award during Final Four weekend in San Antonio, when he still hopes to be busy. “I’m sure at the end of the season I’ll look back on it but right now it’s next game. The real thrill and pride for me comes from being the coach at Villanova, being mentioned in the same sentence as Al Severance, Jack Kraft, Rollie Massimino, Jack Kraft, and Steve Lappas. That’s enough for me.”
Ironically it was the late Severance’s grandson, who first pointed out Wright would eventually surpass his Grandpa, who coached from 1936-61.
“I never met Al,” said Wright of the man who died April 1, 1985 the day Massimino’s team stunned Ewing and Georgetown to win the National Championship. “I went to his induction into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. It was actually at the induction his grandson said something about looking forward to me passing him. It’s really nice.”
It’s also been nice having Brunson and Bridges the last three years, watching them evolve from role players to not only solid, reliable players but team leaders. If this is indeed their last go-round they want to make it count.
“Coach always says be the best you can be,” said Bridges, who led the way with 24 points against the Hoyas, who stayed within striking distance until Villanova finally broke it open in the last eight minutes. “But we’re not done yet. We’ll come back to practice Monday and learn. Buy I just try to go out on the court every night and help this team by being the best leader I can be and leading by example.”
After splitting back-to-back overtime games at Creighton and Seton Hall, Wright was happy not to have to sweat one out thanks to 57.4 percent shooting while placing five in double figures. Now he’s hoping to carry that momentum into New York this week, before the NCAA’s Big Dance gets underway next week.
“It was a good finale for us here,” said Wright,” whose club has struggled with its shooting — particularly from beyond the arc — before this. We got better defensively and we were better on the boards. For a team that is trying to get its chemistry back, I thought we took a step in the right direction. We’re making good progress.”
After a 31-game preliminary, leading into this week’s Big East Tournament followed by the NCAA’s bash, for the man soon to become Villanova’s all-time winningest coach and his team, it’s finally time to find out.