By Lenn Robbins
So it turns out that Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t the only Hall of Fame coach to make it to the Final Four but denied another national championship in his final season.
Jay Wright’s shocking resignation Wednesday night surely cast a pall over the Villanova campus. It also creates a big, dark shadow over the Big East Conference.
Simply, painfully put, Wright’s decision is the worst thing to happen to the league since the 2013 realignment that tore Syracuse (and Louisville and Pittsburgh) away and sent the Orange to the ACC and the money, if not solvency, of football.
While Wright, 60, went about establishing a dynasty on the Main Line, the rest of the league’s members never really challenged Nova for supremacy. The Wildcats have won five of the last seven Big East Tournament titles and seven of the last 11 regular-season crowns.
Nova has been to three Final Fours since 2016, when the Wildcats edged North Carolina for Wright’s first national title. He won a second in 2018. If Justin Moore hadn’t tore his Achilles tendon in the East Region championship game, 2021 could have brought Wright his third title and Nova its fourth.
No other Big East team has gotten to a Final Four since the “Catholic 7” split from the football-playing members. Syracuse and Louisville made it in 2013 on their way out the door.
Villanova has been the face, body and soul of the league. It’s time for another program, or programs to step up.
This is not to say Villanova is done. No program has had a better culture over the last decade than Nova. The university is academically elite. It is situated in a terrific recruiting base. And Wright’s philosophy of developing players has been a marvel to behold.
According to reports, Fordham coach Kyle Neptune, who spent 10 years at Nova as a video coordinator and assistant coach (guess Wright can develop coaches, too), will replace Wright. Which means this also is a crippling blow to Fordham, the program that can’t decide if it wants to be a competitor in the ever-improving Atlantic 10 or go back to being a MAAC program.
Neptune led the Rams to a remarkable 16-16 record (8-10 in the A-10), the university’s first non-losing record since 2015-2016. Since 2007, Fordham has had one winning season. It’s pathetic. Now Fordham goes back to its Bronx drawing board.
This is what happens when an icon suddenly retires. The landscape doesn’t merely shift. It trembles and shakes.
Connecticut and Creighton are the two programs best-positioned to lift the Big East. Ed Cooley will continue to work his magic in Providence but the Friars can only go so far, even in its best seasons.
UConn has a fan base as rabid and dedicated as any in the nation. It has four national championships from 1999-2014. But the fifth-seeded Huskies couldn’t make it out of the first round, getting ousted by New Mexico State. There is a long way to go.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott has quietly built a program that is a Final Four appearance away from being recognized as one of the nation’s best. The Bluejays are fifth in the nation in home attendance and have facilities that rival any in the nation. Creighton has gone 4-2 in the last two NCAA Tournaments, losing 79-72 to eventual national champion Kansas in a second round game this season.
Marquette seems to have found the right coach in Shaka Smart. Xavier has brought back Sean Miller. Butler has coaxed Thad Matta out of retirement. We’ll see. The glory years at St. John’s and Georgetown seem further away with every passing season.
But Villanova has kept the league in the national discussion. Wright, a better person than he is a coach, has been a human sound bite. Beneath the genial façade is a fierce competitor who got his teams to play with the toughness of throwback Big East teams.
The Wildcats have been so good to the Big East, from the days when Rollie Massimino’s 1985 team pulled off one of the greatest championship game upsets in NCAA Tournament history (apologies, Georgetown,) to the recent success under Wright.
It’s time for other programs to pull their weight. Who else has The Wright Stuff?