Jay Wright was joined by Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges on the podium to preview the national championship game.
COACH WRIGHT: We are thrilled to be here, obviously. Every time you come up here you just kind of pinch yourself, like, we’re still here. This is really cool.
And now having a chance to play Michigan, Big Ten champions, in the championship game is a thrill. They’re a great team. Just like — they remind me of John’s West Virginia teams. Wagner kind of reminds me of a modern-day Pittsnogle, thinned down, eating healthier, a little more skilled.
But just a really well-coached, disciplined team that you expect at this time of year that’s what you’re going to play against, but also from John’s team. So we’re looking forward to a great challenge.
I like that everybody laughed at Pittsnogle. That means there’s good old-fashioned Big East fans here. I like that.
Q. What’s your earliest memory of Beilein? Did it predate that?
COACH WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. My first coaching job was University of Rochester under Mike Neer in 1984, and John was the head coach at LeMoyne College, which is a Division II school in Syracuse, so he was in Syracuse, I was in Rochester. Division III assistant coach is about as low as you can be in the college basketball business.
So John was Division II head coach. And just like he is now, just nicest guy in the world. I was a first-year coach. He was always really friendly. But the recruiting back then was, in upstate New York, we would recruit guys all year, then John would wait until the end of the year, because he had the scholarship, we didn’t.
You’d be on a guy and you’d just hope you wouldn’t see John in the gym. And, like, in April, he’d pop in and he’d see you. You’d say, are you going to take him, John? He goes, yeah, I’m sorry, but we’re going to take him.
And you just — because he was the only Division II team that had scholarship. Division III guys, they would have to pay. But he was always the nicest guy and as a young assistant he was always nice to me. He was young, too. But just the greatest guy.
Then we came to the Big East together, me at Villanova and him at West Virginia. Our wives played tennis together at the Big East.
I’ve got a good one. When the Big East broke up and they left, Patty said, oh, my God. I’m going to lose my tennis partner. Kathy is leaving. I said, we’re losing a great coach and a great team. It’s a little bit bigger than that. It’s a little scary. But just everything you see in John is what you get. Greatest guy in the world, man, great coach.
Q. There’s not many players who can affect the game like Mikal can as far as not needing 25 shots to make an impact or playing defensively the way he does. What is the best quality that you like about coaching him as far as what he brings to a game, and maybe the biggest thing he’s improved on in his leap from last year to this year?
COACH WRIGHT: I think you hit on the most important aspect he brings to our team is in a game like the Kansas game, even when everyone else has it going offensively and he’s a star and pro prospect, he is proud of the fact that whether Graham got it going or Newman got it going, we were switching him on to those guys, we put him on the best player. And he’s fine with that. He actually enjoys that.
And I think the area he’s improved on the most is his ability to create his own shot off the dribble. He could always catch and shoot, move well without the ball, use screens. But now you can put him in isolation and he can use his dribble to create his own shots.
Q. Along with Mikal, I think everyone on the roster had to sit and wait either by choice or by necessity — Jalen behind Ryan. How does that cultivate without issue for you because a lot of times that would be instant transfers and an instant mess?
COACH WRIGHT: I hope that honesty that we use in recruiting is what enables us to do that without controversy. It’s not perfect all the time, but we’re honest with guys when they come in. They know the upperclassmen in our program are respected. They know that they’re going to have to earn their playing time.
And the guys that choose Villanova usually want that. They want the competitiveness to prove themselves. They want to be to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Q. Has your style of coaching or play this year at all been influenced by the NBA, the Warriors, the Rockets with all the 3-pointers? There’s been a lot of talk about that. And do you think Ash Howard is ready to be a head coach? He’s been linked to some jobs.
COACH WRIGHT: I’ll start with Ashley. I think Ashley is definitely ready. He’s bright. He is a basketball lifer. He’s an outstanding recruiter, he’s a very good X-and-O guy. Great teacher on the court. And a really good man, the kind of person you like to have lead your program and be a representative of your university.
And then, yeah, the NBA influence is all of us in college. We all watch the best players, the best coaches and see what we can learn. And the Golden State Warriors have been using this style for a while now. Mike D’Antoni, before he went to the — even when he was with the Suns, we all watched it. As a matter of fact Jalen’s favorite player is Steve Nash. We’ve talked about that. So they had a great influence on us, all of us, but specifically Villanova.
Q. Your second Final Four in three years. The magnitude of all of it, all the media and all the demands. Over the last two Final Fours how has your comfort level improved, the fact — the magnitude of handling everything? And then coaching your guys to be as successful as they were two years ago and thus far this year?
COACH WRIGHT: Are you asking are we comfortable with handling all this stuff, all this media and all this? I hope you’re not setting me up here, Joe, because I’ve got to deal with you all the time. Are you telling me I’m not doing as good a job anymore, is that what you’re saying? (Laughter).
No, there’s so much attention over the last few years that the challenge is to not miss out on the time with my family and my players, that it just becomes a challenge. I’m not complaining about it. It’s a great spot to be in. But there’s so many more demands on your time. You’ve got to make sure — it’s your job, so you have to do it. If that’s the toughest part of your job it’s pretty good. This is fun.
But it’s not good if it takes away from your family or your time with your players because that’s really your job is your time with your team and your coaches. And that is a challenge. It’s something that I struggle with. I try to do a good job. That’s why I’m sensitive about that question. I don’t know if you’re telling me I’m doing a bad job, either side. But it’s a difficult challenge.
Q. But the comfort too in coaching your players and making sure they’re all ready and at the top of their game when they come out of the tunnel.
COACH WRIGHT: With all this? Yeah, I’m not comfortable. It’s a challenge. I want to make sure — like today, we met this morning, watched film this morning, and I had to come over earlier to get here. So I get a little paranoid about that. I want to make sure I do that job better than this job, but I know I have to do a good job at this.
Q. You coached against John and Bobby Huggins in the old Big East. Has John’s coaching philosophy changed at all since you last coached against him in on a regular basis? And along those lines, has your philosophy changed at all since you coached against those guys in the old Big East?
COACH WRIGHT: Yeah, I think we’ve both changed. And to Adam’s question about the NBA, John never ran pick and roll at West Virginia, never. But they still have a lot of the elements of that old West Virginia offense.
But John has really expanded — they were hard to guard back then, but now with the addition of pick and roll and drive in space, they’re brutal, they’re at a whole other level now.
And we’ve changed a lot, just simple things like we would never play zone before. We play zone. And there’s a lot of things that have changed. The game changes, your players change and if you’re not getting, if you’re not improving as a coach and learning more, then you’re not doing your job. So I think both of us have changed a lot.
Q. You have a national championship. And John is one of the coach’s coach and everyone respects him. And he says, like you, he didn’t think about winning one and how it’s going to change your life or anything. I’ve talked to coaches, they don’t think that they would — it’s not going to change their opinion of him if he has a national championship or not on his resumé. And I’m wondering what does change when you do and what you think of a career like his like you were talking about starting at the bottom rungs of coaching and getting to here?
COACH WRIGHT: I think what changes is just people look at you differently after you’ve won it, mostly positively. But sometimes if you don’t handle it well they look at you negatively. They just look at you a lot more. You just get a lot more attention.
But I don’t think that would affect John. I really don’t. I know what he enjoys about coaching is what we enjoy about coaching and it’s his relationship with his players, his connection to his university. I think that’s what he really enjoys. I don’t think it would change him.
And I know everybody in our business really respects him, because when you compete against somebody, you look at, okay, you know when you play a team, like this guy really does a good job; they’re hard to guard. And when we do something they always adjust. He’s respected as one of the best in that area.
Q. I was talking with Charlie Woollum a few moments ago, and I am curious, A, what influence did he have on your career arc; and, B, how long did it take you to forgive him for not starting you as a senior?
COACH WRIGHT: I’ll answer the second one. I never had to forgive him because I was a handful and he saved me. And I’ve had a lot of patience with a lot of crazy players because they don’t know it, but I was worse than all of them. And he never says that. I don’t know if he told you that.
But every time I see him, and he’s down here with us, I say to him, Coach, I’m grateful that you were patient with me. He’s, like, you were great. You were great to coach. That was not true.
But he’s had a lot of influence. He was a very, very creative offensive coach. Back then we ran a numbered break, a system break that he got from Sonny Allen. And we shot him up and slept in the streets. His teams were really good and I learned a lot of that from him.
And I always believed — I remember playing for him — you know, you ran a system, you ran your spots. A little bit like John. And if you had your shot, you take it, you take it. If you’re missing them, you kept shooting them. I just always remembered as a player always having that confidence that he was allowing us to shoot the ball if it was our shot. That it was something I carried on with our teams.
Probably patience with characters, giving shooters confidence and having respect for guys — I was a captain my junior year and leading scorer, and I didn’t start my senior year.
So always thinking about those guys that aren’t playing because I understand how tough it was on me, always thinking about how those guys feel because he was great with me.
Q. I was curious, a lot has been said about kind of the stretch 4 and 5 players. I wanted to get your thoughts on what you guys need to do defending Moe Wagner?
COACH WRIGHT: I’ll be honest with you we’re still watching film. I’m not sure I’ve got the answer yet. We have a little bit of a plan in mind, but just so impressed with — I’ll just give you one play. In the Loyola game, he shot-faked with his right hand and threw a left-handed bounce pass back door for a layup. Who does that? You don’t see point guards do that.
He has the ability to beat you in any way. I think he’s one of those players that you’re not going to shut him down. You just gotta hope you can minimize his influence on the game. I think that’s what we’re going to try to do.
Q. I was wondering whether or not you have ever directly kind of crossed paths with Michigan on the recruiting trail over the past few years? And maybe you have and I’d be curious to hear it. But even without that, do you feel like you are kind of going after a similar profile of player?
COACH WRIGHT: Yeah, we definitely are. And we do run into them a lot. Because John has East Coast ties also. But the same kind of players, same kind of schools except for state school, private school, high academic schools.
I think both of us are looking for guys that want to be in college. And we both love having guys that are pros too, but we want guys that want to be part of a program. So we do run into them a lot. And they do have a freshman on the team right now that I thought we were going to get from Pennsylvania and probably not allowed to say who I really felt we were getting and John beat us for him. And he’s going to be a really good player for them.
Q. Your counterparts in the women’s tournament have to answer this all the time so I want your thoughts. You won handily last night. It evoked a lot of shades of a couple years ago when you blew out Oklahoma. On this stage in the tournament and the Final Four, do you think it’s bad for the men’s game if there are blowouts?
COACH WRIGHT: Um, everyone would rather see a close game. I actually thought about that after the game. I come to these games as a fan far more than I do as a coach. And I always want to see a close game.
But when you’re coaching in it, it’s much better this way. I think our game — if you look at this tournament overall, I think our game’s strong enough that it can withstand a double-digit victory and it’s not going to affect the game at all.
Q. You’ve got Mikal in your huddle for the last time tomorrow night. This sort of a variation of the question you’ve heard before. But we were talking last night about when teams load their defenses, when they put the names on board of who we’re not going to let kill us, I mean, he’s very near the top of the list obviously. So a game happens, like last night, where if you looked at the box score, you can’t find a lottery player on the box score; you don’t know who it is. And again is that remarkable just to him, is it just basketball intelligence that, okay, I’m not going to force myself? I mean, how does that happen and is it mostly him or mostly you?
COACH WRIGHT: No, it’s him. And I think sometimes — coaches know this, but we don’t talk about this a lot — how a star player, when things aren’t going well for him can really negatively affect the team. You don’t see it out there, but it could be a bad shot or a couple of possessions taking off defensively because he’s frustrated that he’s not the star. And.
It happens a lot in our game. Mikal is incredible that way, incredible. And I think it’s a matter of humility and intelligence. So he’s humble enough that he doesn’t have to be the star, and I think he’s smart enough to know that my presence on the floor and doing the little things is actually helping our team and affecting that opponent more than anyone knows.
Q. You talked about Wagner. You guys also have Spellman. I’m wondering just how important it is in the modern game to have bigs that can shoot the 3, and sort of how has that changed over time?
COACH WRIGHT: It’s invaluable. I mean, it’s the toughest thing to guard. And it’s being able to shoot the ball but also — and this is the challenge with Wagner — it’s not just being able to shoot the ball, but it’s being able to put the ball on floor and create your shot.
Think about his ability to do that — I’ve answered so many questions, I can’t remember if I said it here already, but you just don’t see anybody like that. We haven’t played against anybody like that that their 5 man can shoot 3s, but then he can put it on the floor, get to the basket, right hand, left hand, finish, and if you double him or help, he’s going to find the open man.
There aren’t a lot of guys that can do that, but if you look at Draymond Green, the body types are different, but the body of the game is the same for the Warriors. It’s a really valuable weapon to have.
Q. Many of the 3-point records you’ve broke last night were Jerry’s teams before you spent the year there in Vegas with Rollie. When you think back to his teams —
COACH WRIGHT: Jerry’s team had the 3-point records.
Q. Several. You broke some of them last night. But a few of them that was his teams.
COACH WRIGHT: I didn’t know that.
Q. Was that more NBA or were you the ones with Rollie did you look at the teams Jerry had and what influenced you what influence did you think those teams had on college basketball?
COACH WRIGHT: That really surprises me because everything — a lot of the things we still do defensively we picked up watching Grqurich and his teams defensively. I wouldn’t have thought of that as 3s. But the 3-point is more NBA.
Mike D’Antoni, those old Suns days. And then everyone else — as I said we all watched the NBA and how everyone else picked parts of that, the Warriors and that’s probably where more that influence came.
Q. Wondering when you started at Hofstra, you had three straight losing seasons. Was there ever any concern that maybe this head coaching thing wasn’t going to work out for you?
COACH WRIGHT: He laughs when you say that. (Laughter) Wasn’t funny back then. It’s not funny. Yeah, definitely Pat. It’s a great story: In our fourth year we did a home visit with a kid in teens. Tom Pecura was my assistant, and the mother at the home visit, I thought I put on a great show, and do you have any questions for me. And she said, yeah, the previous coach — I won’t say the school — was just in here and said that you guys are getting fired at the end of this year.
And I said no, we’re great, we’re good. 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. (Laughter).
I was enjoying myself. But at that point in my fourth year I started thinking this could be it. I really did. 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.
Q. Jalen, how do you shoot so well in this environment? You can’t practice shooting in the dome, how do you shoot so well in this?
JALEN BRUNSON: It just comes to our confidence we have in each other and ourselves, our work ethic. Trying to think about where we are, trying to think about anything else besides what’s happening inside those lines. I mean, we’re just confident in each other. And I think that’s what makes us, that’s what makes us pretty good us being together on both ends of the floor. And we’re making shots obviously I mean it’s a plus. But when we’re together on defense, that’s really helping us get these leads and helping us be successful in these games. When we make shots, it’s obviously very fortunate.
Q. How do you adjust to the background and everything?
JALEN BRUNSON: Don’t even worry about it. We’re just trying to focus on inside those lines. It’s easier said than done. But I mean when you’re just focused on your team and how you’re trying to be the best team you can be out there, it’s pretty simple.
Q. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t follow up on Pat’s question. What were you considering during the time you thought maybe you weren’t going to be able to continue coaching, pretty active discussion?
COACH WRIGHT: I was probably thinking about getting an assistant coach’s job in the NBA. Getting into sales. That’s what I was thinking about. We were probably discussing do we stay in New York or go back to Philly.
Yeah, it was year four, man. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty at that point.
Q. With so many programs going the one-and-done route, if you will, can you elaborate how it’s benefited you probably the most to have the experienced upperclassmen and what has it been that’s made you kind of stick to that working for you?
COACH WRIGHT: Well, the reason we stick to it is we can’t get the one-and-done guys. We’re trying. We really are. As a matter of fact, Jay, when Jay came out, he had just won the MVP of the 19 and under FIBA world championships and people were saying he’s one-and-done, other people were. And he just said I want to get my degree. I want to get my degree. I want to be in college.
We recruit guys that just want to be in college. We want them to enjoy the college experience and then we hope that after one year of enjoying the college experience they have a really difficult decision to make that the NBA wants you but you really enjoy college. Rather than come to college saying I want to get out as soon as I can.
So Josh Hart could have left early last year. Kyle Lowry played two years. So we’ve had some, but we want guys that want that just want to be in college and want to be pros. And so that’s kind of why we really haven’t gotten those guys.
Q. Jalen, Steve Nash is your favorite player, everybody knows that. He was here last night. I was going to ask if you talked to him. He’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame so he was part of the halftime presentation last night. I wondered if you had talk to him or ever talked to him — I’m guessing no, though.
JALEN BRUNSON: I didn’t talk to him last night. I actually met him a while ago when I was younger, just one of the experiences I had with my dad. Yeah, he’s a role model for me and he’s been one of my favorite players ever since I was a little kid.
Q. Did he give you any advice? How old were you when you met him?
JALEN BRUNSON: I was really young. I want to say around nine, 10 years old. I don’t really remember any advice, I just remember being in awe. And I just remember just being able to watch him as a player. It was really cool I had the experience.
Q. Mikal, I’m sure it’s not a surprise to you sometimes when you come out and the game starts and you find opposing defenses loading towards you, and so you’re very good at being unselfish and getting everybody involved. Do you view that sort of respect as much of a compliment as if you were filling every line of the stat sheet?
MIKAL BRIDGES: Most definitely. Just love being unselfish, because I play with four other guys on the court who are also unselfish. And it makes it easier for everybody to be aggressive because it just makes everybody come out and play with confidence. So you know not just one person is going there trying to get numbers or anything like that. We just love playing with each other, playing off each other, trying to find each other and just keep the ball moving.
Q. Jalen, you said it last night after the win, that if you weren’t making shots, if they weren’t falling as much, you felt like you still could have found a way by getting stops. How do you get so comfortable being able to win in a variety of ways?
JALEN BRUNSON: I think it starts with our preparation. We try to prepare ourselves for the most difficult situations. We try and do that in practice. And when it comes to it happening in game time I feel as a team we’re ready. It’s just us really sticking together through tough times and even good times, where we’re not too high, not too low, we’re just trying to stick together through it all.
I think the perfect word for that is just attitude, and it’s something that we believe is our motto, and it’s been a staple in Coach’s program, and it’s something we truly believe that it defines us. In all aspects of our game, all aspects of our life.
Q. Jay, if you could take us through how Eric ended up at Nova and specifically at what point did you go from my good friend is losing his job to I’m getting his best player?
COACH WRIGHT: We started recruiting Eric when he was in high school. And Tom Pecura at Fordham. We were kind of looking at him trying to evaluate him. And Tom got really in hard with him and got a commitment. And we were — it was one of those things that we were thinking if we could really put a push here we might get him from Fordham, but we thought you know what, it’s Tom’s — he knows he wants him and he loves Tom. And so we backed off.
I’m not saying we would have got him. But it was a weird situation. We thought we maybe didn’t make a good enough decision early enough. And then when Tom got fired, I think Tom said Eric wanted me to call you.
And he said I just want you to know I’m good with it. And he was a great kid. So we didn’t get to know him that well. But I watched him play for Tom and I talked to Tom about him and he told me how great he was. Then we got the release and we recruited him and he visited Florida and he visited us and he’s a family — he’s got a great mom and dad, sisters, still have family Sunday dinner. He still goes back up there. So after the Florida visit he’s like I don’t want to be that far any way. So I want to come to Villanova and be part of a family.
Q. Could you speak to how your walk-ons and non-rotation players have impacted your success over the past few years and this year?
COACH WRIGHT: I’ll be glad to. Our walk-ons are a big part of our program. We have a saying that everyone’s role is different but everyone’s status is the same. Those guys get treated just like everybody else. And they are just as important. They prepare us, scouting reports, practice drills, scout team, individual workouts with our guys. They work with our guys.
When guys are redshirted, they practice extra with the guys that are sitting out. They’re great students. They represent our team on campus and in the community. They’re amazing guys. It’s not an easy thing to do. You start as a practice player so you’re really not traveling with the team then you have to earn your spot as a walk-on. Tremendous young men. Big parts of our program.
Q. You were saying last night that you don’t dream about this because who thinks of going two times in three years. So few teams have ever done that. I’m curious how you look at this achievement because it is such a different group, even though they share a lot of the same characteristics, the guys here two years ago are playing much different roles than they were then. How do you look at that dealing with two different cores?
COACH WRIGHT: I’m surprised, not — if you would have asked me at the beginning of the season until now, I’m surprised. But as we kept getting better and better each week during the season you’re just looking at the next game. So you see how you played against Kansas and then you’d go back and watch film say, okay, what can we do better against Michigan, do we have a shot? We’ve got a shot.
So that’s just the way you look at it during the basketball season. At the end of the year you look back — 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? That’s just the way we do it. And I really haven’t got my mind around the whole thing yet.
I want to really keep my focus on just continuing to prepare for Michigan. We enjoy being in the film session with the guys, talking to the guys about how we’re going to try to guard Wagner, letting the guys make comments about that and seeing how focused everybody is and seeing how the managers put tape on the carpet to make a full court in a hotel room so they can walk — just being into all that. Then I think I’ll try to get some type of understanding of what’s going on here the last three years after it’s over.