Charboneau: Wiser coach gets it Wright at Final Four
Houston — The last time Jay Wright stood on a raised basketball court in the middle of a football stadium, it didn’t take him long to realize he was on a stage that he and his team were overwhelmed by.
It can be easy for teams — and coaches — to be awed by the scale of the Final Four — 60,000-plus fans, the national TV audience. All of college basketball — all of sports, really — with their eyes on that raised court.
That was the case in 2009 at Ford Field in Detroit. Wright brought his Villanova team to the Motor City hoping to get back to the national title game for the first time since 1985 when the Wildcats shocked everyone by beating Georgetown for their only national championship.
Instead, the Wildcats got rolled. And for Wright, he realized it well before the final buzzer.
“It was in the middle of the game,” Wright recalled this week. “You’re standing up there on a stage in front of everybody. You could just see the focus in Carolina. I think they were there the year before ... You could see the focus in those guys. You could see our guys were just playing a game. I knew. It was about 10 minutes into the game. I knew. I was like, ‘I didn’t get these guys ready.’ ”
Wright admitted this week that it was all too much seven years ago, telling his team then to enjoy the moment, soak it all in.
“I had no idea when I said that how big it all was,” Wright said.
Seven years and several NCAA Tournament disappointments later, Wright got his team back. And when Villanova took the floor Saturday at NRG Stadium against Oklahoma in the first of two national semifinals, there would be no soaking it in.
Instead, the Wildcats were dialed in, as they had been from the second they landed in Houston earlier in the week.
“We got here early,” Wright said, “hung out in the locker room together, rather than hanging out with our family and friends.”
He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice, and when Saturday’s game was 10 minutes in, he knew he’d made the right call.
At the 10-minute mark this time, Villanova was in the midst of a 21-4 run that would blow the game open. The Wildcats went on to win, 95-51, the largest margin of victory ever in a Final Four game. There was even a 25-0 run in the second half for Villanova.
“I think at halftime I felt good, like we were focused in and we were playing good basketball,” Wright said. “I didn’t think it was ours at that point, but I felt good that what we decided to do was working.”
Oklahoma managed to cut the margin to nine early in the second half, but the 25-0 run soon followed and all that was left was to play out the clock.
Everything went right for the Wildcats. They shot 71.4 percent, including 61.1 percent from 3-point range. They forced 17 Oklahoma turnovers, held player of the year Buddy Hield to nine points on 4-for-12 shooting and scored more points in the second half than the Sooners did the entire game.
And it was all because of that approach, a drastic change from the one Wright realized not long into his first foray onto the Final Four stage was no good. These players weren’t around in 2009, but they bought in, trusting they were on the right path.
“It all trickles down from him,” said junior guard Josh Hart, who scored a game-high 23.
Wright hammered it home — play the game, not the moment.
“To us it’s a normal game,” junior forward Kris Jenkins said. “We concentrate on 90 by 50 feet. We play for each other and our coaching staff. We try to play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes and accept the outcome.”
As luck would have it, that outcome means Villanova gets to see the same team it did back in Detroit. North Carolina understood the moment then, beating Villanova, 83-69, then knocking off Michigan State two days later to win the national championship.
This is old hat for North Carolina.
The Tar Heels’ 83-66 victory over Syracuse in the second game Saturday sends them to their 10th national championship game. They’ve played in 19 Final Fours and coach Roy Williams is coaching in his eighth, looking for his third national title.
“I couldn’t be having a more fantastic ride than I’m having right now,” Williams said late Saturday night.
He’s had his share of rides, both good and bad. He got to the Final Four with Kansas four times but never won a title and has won two of the three times he’s made it with North Carolina.
He’ll be doing everything he can to keep Wright from getting his first taste of a national title, something that could require this Villanova team to summon some of the magic from the 1985 team.
That team is the ultimate Cinderella of March Madness and it’s never far from the minds of those at Villanova.
“There’s something in me that those guys are so special, I don’t want that team to ever lose their magic,” Wright said. “I don’t think they will. But I’d love our team to do it.”
If they do, they’ll have their own place in Villanova lore. They won’t be David — they’re too good for that. What they will be is focused, ready to play the game and not the moment.