San Antonio — With the opportunity to win a second national title in three years just hours away, Villanova coach Jay Wright took a minute to think back when things weren’t going quite as well.
It was 1997 and Wright was entering his fourth season as the head coach at Hofstra and had yet to put together a winning season. As he and assistant coach Tom Pecura conducted an in-home visit with a recruit, the prospect’s mother told the coaches that another coaching staff had just told them the guys from Hofstra were about to get fired.
“I said, ‘No, we’re great. We’re good,’” Wright recalled. “So I came out of the home visit, I said to Tom Pecura, ‘Can you believe someone would say that? How could another coach say that?’ He said, ‘Jay, we've lost for three straight years, we might get fired.’ I thought we were doing fine.”
Fortunately for Wright, Hofstra stuck with their coach and was rewarded with four straight winning seasons and two berths in the NCAA Tournament. It led to Wright being hired at Villanova in 2001 where he has built the Wildcats into a consistent national contender.
Entering Monday night’s national championship game against Michigan at the Alamodome, Villanova has set the record for the most wins in Division I history over a four-year span with 135 and is the fifth team to reach the national title game by winning each game in the tournament by double-digits.
A victory on Monday and Wright would join Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams as the only active coaches with multiple national titles.
Sometimes, it’s all a bit surreal for Wright.
“Sometimes you're on a bus ride over and you look at the assistants and you're like, ‘Can you believe this? Can you believe we're here?’” Wright said. “That's just the way we do it. And I really haven't got my mind around the whole thing yet.”
None of it would be possible, however, if the rumor that prospect’s mother heard turned out to be true.
“I was enjoying myself, but at that point in my fourth year I started thinking this could be it. I really did,” Wright said. “I would be lying to you if I didn't say I wasn't talking to my wife about plans about what else we would do.
“Yeah, it was year four, man. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't pretty at that point.”
When Villanova and Michigan take the floor Monday night, not everyone will be complete strangers, even though the teams haven’t played since 2014.
A few players have a history, including Villanova forward Mikal Bridges and Michigan guard Muhamad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman. The Pennsylvania natives played on the same AAU team heading into senior years in high school.
“Yeah, that’s one of my close buddies,” Bridges said of Abdur-Rahkman. “He is good. He is a cool guy and he was a real scorer in high school, he scored a lot of points in high school. We met each other that summer going into our senior year. He is a real nice guy and he is playing really well.”
There’s also a history between Villanova’s Jalen Brunson and Michigan’s Charles Matthews. Both are from the Chicago area and while they didn’t play with each other, they knew of each other. That’s because Brunson edged Matthews for Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 2015.
“When you see people from your area do well, you’re excited for them as well,” Brunson said. “It shows you how tough the competition was back in Illinois. I’m very happy for him. You respect people you grew up around.”
“Jalen dominated in high school, he's a terrific player and won a state title,” Matthews said. “He had a hell of a career and I'm not surprised of the success he's had at the collegiate level as well.”
JUST KEEP WINNING
It’s been almost a month-and-a-half since the Wildcats lost a game, and they’re relishing the run.
“We’re just enjoying the moment and just playing hard together, which is always the most fun for us,” forward Omari Spellman said. “Coach says it all the time that winning is fun. We’re just taking it one game at a time and trying to enjoy the moment, but also be prepared for our next opponent.”