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Jon Wagner

Wagner: Top-Ranked Villanova Does No Wrong in Wright’s Hofstra Homecoming

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The 10.2-square-mile town of Levittown, PA sits 12 miles southeast of the two-square-mile settlement of Churchville, PA, where Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright was born and raised.

Villanova, 17 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is 27 miles southwest of Churchville and 150 miles southeast of Bucknell University (in central Pennsylvania), where Wright played college basketball from 1979-83.

Just 4½ miles straight to the east, along Hempstead Turnpike, from Hofstra University and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, is the 6.9-square-mile town of Levittown, NY.

And, of course, Long Island music icon Billy Joel, who has sold out 33 shows at Nassau Coliseum (located across the street from Hofstra), has a famous song about Allentown, PA, which is 51 miles due north of Villanova.

Although Wright is a Pennsylvania guy through and through (living his dream as head coach of the highly successful Wildcats), he can’t, even to some ironic geographic extents, shake any of his strong ties to Hofstra — where he cut his head coaching teeth — nor does he ever want to.

While the many natural topographical connections exist, it’s the emotional ones from once helping to put Hofstra on the college basketball map which still tug at Wright’s heartstrings the most.

The Hofstra Pride (formerly the Hofstra Flying Dutchmen), now in its 54th season, has yet to win an NCAA tournament game, and hadn’t reached the Big Dance since doing so in consecutive years in 1976-77 prior to Wright’s first head coaching job, at Hofstra, after Wright bounced around for a decade as an assistant coach at Division III Rochester before moving on to DI posts at Drexel, Villanova (for five years under college hoops legend Rollie Massimino) and UNLV (again, with Massimino).

After struggling through three losing seasons (going 31-51) to start his Hofstra career, Wright, with the help of Craig “Speedy” Claxton (an eventual first-round NBA draft pick) — who is currently a Hofstra Pride assistant coach — turned Hofstra’s program around, going 91-34 over the succeeding four years, which culminated with Wright garnering back-to-back America East Coach of the Year awards, Hofstra’s two most recent trips to the NCAA tournament (in 2000 and 2001) and a previously nonexistent, palpable buzz around the program which included highly popular WFAN (New York) radio co-hosts Mike Francesa and Chris Russo calling live play-by-play of the 2000 America East championship game that sent Hofstra to its first NCAA tournament in 23 years.

While Francesa — who had interviewed Wright and current Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich numerous times on the WFAN — was in attendance once again (this time, with a front row seat), exactly one week after doing the final show of an extremely successful 30-year run, things were a lot different on Friday night at Nassau Coliseum as Wright returned to play Hofstra for the first time since starting as Villanova’s head coach in the 2001-02 season. 

Immediately following its two-year run to the NCAA tournament under Wright, Hofstra joined the Colonial Athletic Association, where the Pride has failed to win another conference title ever since.

Wright, meanwhile, has brought Villanova (and himself) to national prominence, taking the program to an Elite Eight in 2006, a Final four three years later and capturing the school’s second national title two years ago (to match the one Villanova has under Wright’s mentor, Massimino, in 1986) while having the Wildcats currently ranked No. 1 in the country for a third year in a row. 

As expected, Wright’s former school was no match for his current one, as top-ranked Villanova improved to a perfect 12-0 this season with an easy 95-71 rout of Hofstra (7-5), which lost its second consecutive game after winning four straight.

Billed as a Villanova home game, with the Pride clad in its road blue uniforms, and the Wildcats in their home whites — along with their team logo at midcourt, while playing in front of a decidedly pro-Villanova crowd — Wright’s return to Long Island was a home away from home.

“We could’ve walked here, and all we saw was Villanova stuff,” Mihalich joked afterward. “It was a little weird.”

Undeterred, Hofstra had 25 points (on 9-of-18 shooting) from its best player (junior guard Justin Wright-Foreman), scored five straight points to take an early 5-2 lead and was ahead, 9-7, before the second of a barrage of Villanova 3-pointers to come gave the Wildcats the lead for good, 10-9.

With Hofstra still hanging around, down just 17-16, more than 7½ minutes in, Villanova turned up its defensive pressure using a zone press that turned the game. The Wildcats scored the next 12 points to spark a larger 27-7 spurt which put them up, 44-23, and they coasted from there.  

“We’re disappointed,” Mihalich said later. “We’re supposed to be… you can’t make mistakes against this team and if you do, they make you pay. That’s why they’re No. 1 in the country. I don’t know if they have a weakness.”

Despite the wide final margin, Hofstra (48.3 percent) actually outshot Villanova (47.9 percent) and was even with the Wildcats on the glass (34 rebounds for each team), but with the way Wright has his Wildcats expertly spreading the floor and defending the perimeter, Villanova had an insurmountable 33-point advantage from behind the arc, where it went 16-for-34 to Hofstra’s 5-for-16.

Although second-leading scorer, redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges, led Villanova with 20 points, the Pride limited him to 6-of-15 shooting. But the other four Villanova players to score in double figures all did efficient damage from 3-point range, where redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (19 points) was 3-for-4, redshirt junior guard (and Wildcats’ leading scorer this year) Phil Booth (17 points) was 4-for-5, redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (16 points) was 4-for-9 and junior guard Jalen Brunson (14 points) went 3-for-6.

The best example of the Wildcats’ long-range firepower came as the first half concluded.

Following a turnover by Wright-Foreman, Wright called a timeout to set up a play with 1.2 seconds left in the half.

Inbounding from between the two benches at mid-court, DiVincenzo made a nice cross-court pass to Booth, who as Wright’s admitted “third option” on the play, beat the first half buzzer with a reflexive catch-and-shoot 35-footer from the right wing to send the teams to their respective locker rooms with Villanova up, 52-31, matching the Wildcats’ largest lead of the first half.

Hofstra never got closer than 18 points the rest of the way as the lead grew to as much as 28 points in the final two minutes.

“They really shoot the ball and they’re making 3s,” Mihalich said of the Wildcats. “They stretch the floor out, there’s no weakness defensively, they have all the intangibles, but the way they shoot the ball [is great].”

Wright-Foreman added, “We came out [defensively], we were closing out to them and they were still making shots. It was like, ‘Geez, what else can we do?’ Defensively, they’re really good as well. They communicate perfectly. Overall, a great team.”

Heaping praise on Wright with his own coach immediately to his left, Wright-Foreman was thankful to have had a shot at No. 1, despite the lopsided outcome. 

“It’s a tremendous experience,” he said. “Not a lot of people get to do that… Coach Jay Wright is definitely an amazing coach.”

Noting some big recent upsets nationally — including Wofford’s shocking win at No. 5 North Carolina two nights earlier — Wright said he felt, “A lot of relief, a lot of relief.” 

He then gave fans of his former school reasons to believe in its team this season. 

“Their team’s good,” he said. “They had it going for a while, then our defense sped them up a little bit and we got some easy baskets. Hofstra is a tough team to play. They’re scrappy. Joe’s got a great way to prepare for you. They know all your cuts, they change up their defenses. You can’t look good [against them], and it frustrated our guys sometimes. 

“I think that’s why that team, when they get to their league (in CAA play), is gonna have a chance to win it. They really prepare well. They knew all our cuts. That’s a great job by [Joe’s] staff. Speedy helps there, too. He knows a lot. And those guards, when they get it going, they can beat you. Our guys respected that and I thought we did a pretty good job against a team that can get you.” 

Taking a positive from the loss, while stressing the importance of staying the course in terms of his own team’s philosophies, Mihalich noted, “There were stretches we played well. I think we learned a lot about ourselves… this game will make us better.

“You can’t start changing what you do because of the other team, whether it’s the No. 1 team in the country or No. 85 in the country. You’ve got to do what you do best. We try to concentrate on ourselves as much as what the other team does.”

Against Hofstra, what Villanova did was calm its coach, who was more of a nervous wreck on the inside than he demonstrated outwardly.

“[It was] very emotional for me,” Wright divulged. “I don’t show it, but I’m an emotional person. It was tough. I appreciate our guys staying focused. I don’t know if I was at the top of my game, but they were. They did a great job.

“This game, for me, personally, there was a lot of emotion. I told the guys a few days ago, ‘Look, I’m messed up on this one.’ We’re usually really focused, I’m really focused, and I tried to be, but coming back here, there are just so many great feelings [and] emotions… this is a great place.”

On the emotional level, Mihalich can relate. 

He said,I can go back (almost) 20 years in my career, the very first time I became a head coach at Niagara, I had to go back to LaSalle, where I was an assistant for 17 years, and if [Jay] felt the way I felt, it was an incredibly weird feeling. It’s hard. Hofstra’s a special place to Jay Wright and it should be.

“Coaches are emotional and get close to places. Jay had to leave. [Leaving for Villanova] was too good of an opportunity to stay, [yet] if he had stayed at Hofstra for the rest of his life, I’m sure he would’ve died a happy man.”

Career-wise, Wright (who is closing in on his next milestone, with a 398-161 record at Villanova) made the right choice, even though he still possesses a fondness for the school that gave him the springboard he needed to accomplish much bigger things.

Now, Wright is on the other side, knowing how Mihalich feels, having coached Hofstra’s last game against Villanova, an 86-74 loss, almost two decades earlier, on Dec. 27, 1997.

Wright might have waited even longer for his homecoming game against ex-school had it not been for the Wildcats’ regular on-campus, 31-year-old Pavilion arena undergoing a $60 million renovation just after the Nassau Coliseum completed its own $165 million makeover in April.

But with those circumstances in place, the Coliseum came calling. 

Wright said, “I was lucky that Nassau Coliseum contacted us and [asked], ‘Would you play a game here?’ in a year when we don’t have a [true] home court, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s perfect. Could we play Hofstra, since we’re going to be there [anyway]?’ And Hofstra worked their schedule to be able to play this game.” 

Modestly, Wright continued, “I wouldn’t want people to think I would ever take this game [strictly for myself]. Villanova’s not my team, it’s not my school, I just work for them, so it’s not my right to take them to my place I love. So it worked out for me and I’m thrilled that we were able to do it.” 

Wright was also happy to have another reunion with Claxton, who through his stellar play at Hofstra, was the person most responsible for Wright’s success during Wright’s first head coaching job and thus, Wright having the opportunity to accomplish what he has at his current one.

Like Wright, Claxton doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, but he had a wide smile as he and Wright embraced on the court, and has spoken fondly of his old coach in the past. 

Mihalich said, “Speedy keeps it all inside, but I’m sure it was [emotional for him too] because he and Jay have a special relationship, and I’m sure they had their moment together, which is kind of neat.”

Trying again to avoid becoming too emotional, Wright kept that topic strictly about basketball. “I wish [Speedy] was still on my team,” he quipped.

Sounding conflicted, Wright summed the night by saying, “It’s great to be back here… I come back here a lot, but to come back and play against Hofstra, I never wanted to do that. I don’t want to beat Hofstra. I root for Hofstra. We watch Hofstra games, we follow all the Hofstra scores, my kids still follow the Hofstra scores.”

That comment proved what is true for many coaches who get a key start at one place — normally a mid-major school like Hofstra — and who go on to realize bigger dreams elsewhere, usually at a blue-blood powerhouse like Villanova:

You can take that the eventual big-time coach out of the earlier special place, but you can’t always do the opposite.

 


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