VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright had a case of tournament jitters. He warned his friends he could be tough to watch.
Always a stylish picture of cool on the sideline, Wright worried he’d garble names as a guest studio analyst.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to get them right,” Wright said, laughing.
There was no need for media critics to rip his work. Wright was as smooth on TV last year as he is at news conferences or mingling with boosters. But his most enlightening insight had little to do with Final Four breakdowns — it was knowing TV work from a studio was not where he wanted to spend his NCAA tournament. Wright wanted back in the March mix with Villanova and show a 19-loss season was more an aberration than the start of a downward spiral.
Fast forward to last Sunday and Wright returned to the airwaves talking basketball. Sports radio, late-night highlight shows, the local news, the media darling was all over the place.
This time, Wright wasn’t explaining what other teams had to do to advance in basketball’s most grueling month. He was promoting Ryan Arcidiacono, JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard and the rest of his tournament-bound Wildcats.
One year after Villanova suffered its worst season since it started play in 1920, the Wildcats rebounded with a 20-13 record, four wins over Top 25 teams and a spot in the 68-team tournament field. The ninth-seeded Wildcats play No. 8 North Carolina on Friday in the second round.
“Early in the year, I would have been very pleased with any postseason play with this team,” Wright said. “Even if we would have played CBI.”
From 19 losses to 20 wins, not even Wright’s most ardent supporters could have predicted this reversal. Not even Wright, who led the Wildcats to the 2009 Final Four, was totally sure what he had with this group.
The questions were plenty after last season. Villanova, with all of its tradition and history, went home without a tournament appearance for the first time since 2004. It was a dark time on the Main Line. Wright had to moonlight during last season’s tournament for CBS and Turner Sports.
After a slow start — and more doubts hovering over Wright in this proud basketball city and in the Big East — the Wildcats appear back where they belong, and they hope to keep the big wins rolling. Beat the Tar Heels, and they would likely play top-seeded Kansas in Kansas City.
“I know what the perception would have been if we didn’t go two years in a row,” Wright said. “But I also knew where these guys were going. I knew these guys were going to be good. I didn’t expect it to happen this quickly.”
It looked like even a CBI bid was out of reach after a three-game losing streak in late November, that included an embarrassing home loss to Ivy League Columbia, one of the more head-scratching losses in Wright’s 12 seasons. They lost again to city rival Temple on Dec. 5, but then won seven straight games. For the first time, fans talked in hushed tones — and asked under pseudonyms on message boards — if maybe the Wildcats were postseason bound.
The Wildcats then went on a season-worst three-game losing streak before they proved their March credentials. Villanova made the Wells Fargo Center the site of the program’s largest parties of the season — at midcourt after students stormed their way into a celebration of upsets over then-No. 5 Louisville and then No.-3 Syracuse. Throw in a win a month later against nationally-ranked Marquette, and the unranked Wildcats suddenly were a team with wide eyes fixed on busting some brackets.
Villanova finished the regular season with a win over then-No. 5 Georgetown, snapping the Hoyas’ 11-game winning streak.
This time, the fans stayed in their seats.
It was a clear sign the Wildcats were finished with upsets. They had made everyone expect they would win.
“I thought we could be a good team,” Wright said. “But I didn’t know how long it would take or where we would be. I think our guys have confidence they can play with anybody in the country.”
The Wildcats also have the humility to know they can lose to any team, too. Yes, the Columbia loss stung. But so did two losses to Providence, a clunker at Seton Hall, and then a 19-point loss in a rematch with Louisville in the Big East tournament.
“I can’t figure out with our team yet whether our inconsistency comes from relaxing after a certain number of good wins,” Wright said, “or if it’s truly inexperience.”
Mouphtaou Yarou and Mo Sutton are the only seniors who play. Arcidiacono, the gutty point guard, is a freshman. Pinkston, their leading scorer, is a sophomore. Hilliard (a sophomore) and James Bell (a junior) round out the starting five. It’s the kind of nucleus that has Wright confident the Wildcats can build off this season and become contenders in next year’s reimagined Big East.
For Yarou, he sat on the podium after the bracket was unveiled and said how badly wanted to go out a winner.
“It’s a little bit selfish, but I feel great,” he said. “I feel great because Scottie (Reynolds) took his team to the NCAA tournament, Corey Fisher did, and this time I took the team.”
Wright quickly interjected:
“That’s not selfish, that’s not selfish at all,” he said. “There was a lot of responsibility put on you. That’s pride.”
Pride — and wins — have returned to the Main Line by the boatloads. Now, they see if those postseason wins will come, too.
“This is a real gratifying year,” Wright said. “But we want to talk about that later.”