Inside Villanova's epic five-year run

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Jay Wright was surprisingly upbeat on the Thursday morning after Villanova's upset loss to St. John's on Feb. 7.

There was a nice breakfast spread for the coaches and players during their film session. Even Dunkin' Donuts coffee, which the Villanova coach was extremely excited about.

There was maybe only one place Wright would rather have been that morning: 20 minutes away, at the Philadelphia Eagles' Super Bowl parade.

"I would love to be there," the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, native said. "Everyone I know is going. My kids are going, they're all going.

"As much as I love the Eagles, I do love Villanova basketball better. That's about the only team I love better."

And the Wildcats have paid off the love.

Villanova entered the week with the best record since the start of the 2013-14 season, winning 88.4 percent of its games. They've won four straight Big East titles and are 9-3 in the NCAA tournament -- with, of course, the national championship in 2016.

This current golden era of Villanova basketball looked like it was going to arrive almost a decade ago.

The Wildcats earned a 1-seed in 2006 and then reached the Final Four in 2009. They also were finally making their mark on the recruiting trail, landing two five-star prospects in the 2007 class and three five-star prospects in the 2009 class, finishing with the No. 3 recruiting class in the country in '09.

The core of highly touted recruits Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Mouphtaou Yarou, Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek was expected to help Villanova take the next step in the college basketball hierarchy.

Instead, what followed was the worst stretch of Wright's tenure at Villanova since his opening three seasons.

The Wildcats started 16-1 in the 2010-11 season before going 5-10 the rest of the way -- including a five-game losing streak to close the regular season. They were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament by George Mason. It bottomed out the next season, as Villanova finished 13-19 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.

Everyone in the program knew something was wrong.

It went back to recruiting and suddenly trying to outgun the established blue bloods for highly ranked prospects.

"The number was the most important thing," said former assistant Billy Lange, who was with Wright from 2001 to 2004 and 2011 to 2013 and is now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. "You win on the court, then you want to win in the rankings."

Wright had early success at Villanova by getting tough-minded, hard-nosed kids who were mostly local products from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region and the surrounding areas. More often than not, those players weren't ranked in most recruiting services.

But once the Wildcats had success on a national scale, the expectations grew.

"I got sloppy," Wright said. "After we went to the Final Four, it was easy to get guys. So rather than sit down with them and explain, 'Look, I know you want to come, but this is what we do,' I said, 'All right, good, he's a great player? All right, good.'

"And then they got here, we start talking about it and they're like, 'Whoa, no one told me about that.' And they were right. We didn't explain to them what this was. Some of them, when they got here, they got it. Some of them were like, 'Wait, that's not what I signed up for.'"

The 13-19 season in which Villanova finished 5-13 in the Big East was uncharted waters for Wright. He had finished below .500 just once during his time with the Wildcats, and that was his second year in charge.

"We had hit rock bottom after that season," he said. "What are we doing? We're not helping these kids. We're not true to our culture. This is on me. This is a decision I made. This is the culture I've created since the Final Four. These are the guys I brought in. I've got to change."

It took one day for things to begin turning in the other direction.

The day after that 2011-12 season ended, Wright and Lange went on a recruiting trip, hoping to figure out a way rebuild the program.

"He was locked in," Lange said of Wright. "He knew exactly what he needed to do. I remember that trip like, 'We're going to be fine.'"

Six months later, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu enrolled at Villanova.

Eight months later, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart signed to play at Villanova.

Since then, Villanova has become the most successful program in college basketball.

Arcidiacono committed early to Villanova, in October of his junior year of high school.

"Arch was a Villanova basketball player before he ever got here," Wright said. "He was like a kid growing up in Indiana going to Indiana. He grew up in the Philadelphia area. Parents went to Villanova. He followed Villanova since he was 4 years old. He knew what it was before he even got here."

When Arcidiacono pledged to the Wildcats, he wasn't considered the savior of Villanova basketball. After breaking out as a high school sophomore, a back injury during the summer before his senior year dulled the hype. But it was Arcidiacono's arrival, along with classmate Ochefu, that would eventually turn things around for the Wildcats.

"That was the spark," said former Villanova player and assistant coach Baker Dunleavy, now the head coach at Quinnipiac. "Those guys, two guys who grew up watching Villanova basketball. Their DNA fit our program, their fire and competitiveness. Their hunger. That's kind of what our program needed an infusion of."

Wright made an interesting decision before the 2012-13 season: He named Arcidiacono, a freshman who had never played a game for Villanova, the captain.

Dunleavy remembers that it didn't take long for Arcidiacono to prove why he was given that title. Villanova played Purdue at Madison Square Garden a couple of games into the season. It was an ugly game, the type of game Villanova had struggled with over the past couple of seasons. But late in the game, Arcidiacono was switched onto the Boilermakers' big man, boxing him out and winning an over-the-back call.

"The whole team grew from that play," Dunleavy said. "This [was] a different feeling."

Villanova would finish 20-14 that season, earning a 9-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats beat Louisville and Syracuse in the same week, both of whom were ranked in the top five at that point. They won at Connecticut. Still, there were low points, including a 15-point home loss to Columbia in November. In the NCAA tournament, they battled with North Carolina in the first round before falling 78-71.

Villanova went 62-8 the next two seasons, finishing 16-2 in the Big East both times en route to back-to-back conference titles. The Wildcats earned a 2-seed in 2014 and a 1-seed in 2015. In both seasons, they suffered earlier-than-expected tournament exits, first to Connecticut and then to NC State, giving them the reputation of a regular-season power that couldn't advance in March.

But within the program, there was no discussion about getting the monkey off their backs and making it out of the first weekend.

In fact, Wright said JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, who were seniors on the team that was upset by NC State in the second round, are revered by the current players for the way they finished their careers.

"Things are looking bad and they're sliding," Wright said of that game. "And those two, as seniors, in the huddle kept saying, 'Keep playing Villanova basketball, just keep doing what we do.'

"They went out dying on their own sword, like Samurai warriors. If you're going to go out, you're going to out our way. They're legends for how they handled adversity."

There's a sign when you walk into Wright's office that reads: "Play for those who came before us."

A collage of photos featuring former players and teams is on another wall, with "Nova Nation" and "Family" interspersed throughout them.

It's an idea that goes back to the days of Rollie Massimino, who coached at Villanova from 1973 to 1992, leading the Wildcats to a national championship win over Georgetown in 1985.

It's also an idea that still permeates Villanova basketball. Every summer, on the first Monday in August, former players and coaches come back to campus for Summer Jam. There's a game between the current team and the pros who played at Villanova, a golf outing and then a party for the players, coaches and their families.

Another staple that helps keep the former and current players connected is the rule that only current and former players or coaches can step foot onto the practice court. If you're there as a guest to watch, you have to stay in the seats.

It's a way for the current team to remember where the program came from, where the staples of Villanova basketball began.

"There's so many guys that came from that program, that helped build that program, they played Villanova basketball," said Hart, a former All-American at Villanova who now plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. "It's not right for those guys to turn on a Villanova game, and they see stuff they didn't help build."

"They built this culture," redshirt junior Mikal Bridges added. "Us not playing the way we should, not only does it hurt us, it hurts them. They were the ones that were here and did it. They were the ones who put the culture where it's at right now. Why would we damage something that they built that we didn't even build?"

Ironically, Villanova doesn't make a huge point of showing the past on its practice court. The trophies and individual awards are in a glass case near the entrance to the basketball offices. There are no banners or murals on the walls. It's essentially four plain, undecorated walls with the word "attitude" behind each of the two baskets.

"[Wright] talks about winning and losing less than any coach," Dunleavy said.

"He couldn't give a damn about the wins and losses," Hart added.

It's a message that's set before players even step on campus during their recruitment.

When Wright and his staff recruit a high school player, they make sure they lay out what will be asked of the player during his time at Villanova. The idea of family is paramount, and they point to players in the past who made it to the NBA while also being part of a winning culture for three or four years. And not only do they expect total buy-in from the recruit, they also make sure everyone around the recruit is on board, from the parents to the high school coach to the AAU coach.

"He's done a really good job of saying, 'What is my expectation for me and for Villanova and for my staff?' said Jason Donnelly, a former assistant coach under Wright who is now the executive director of athletic development at Villanova. "And my expectation is a certain kind of kid and a certain kind of culture and a certain kind of competitiveness -- and I'm not giving up on that."

Despite the on-court success under Wright, Villanova has had just one top-20 recruiting class since the ESPN recruiting database started in 2007. Villanova has been consistently ranked between 20 and 40, but it also had three unranked recruiting classes from 2010 to 2012. In 12 classes, Villanova has signed 21 ESPN 100 prospects and eight five-star players.

That pales in comparison to the other consistent powers that annually make the top 10 of the recruiting rankings, which is fine with Wright.

"It wasn't, 'I don't want guys that want to be pros.' It was, 'I want dudes that want to be pros, but I want guys that want to play for Villanova and be part of this program,'" Lange said of Wright's recruiting strategy. "'I'm going to message everything I do the same way. If they don't want to come, that's fine.' He also made the conscious decision, however long it takes to get that thing back going, I'm going to do it with those principles in mind."

Wright doesn't recruit 13 scholarship players for every season, preferring to keep a couple of scholarships open -- meaning that when a player is eligible to play, he's very likely going to see an extended role on the court. That's how they're able to redshirt players as freshmen every couple of years without an issue, and why their attrition rate in terms of transfers is so low.

Sometimes it lends itself to depth issues: Villanova has been down to seven or eight scholarship players a couple of times this season because of various injuries. But it more often leads to a more experienced, more prepared team on the floor.

According to Dunleavy, Wright's recruiting process is simple: "I want it to work when the kid is here." In other words, Wright doesn't want to say things in the recruiting process that will come back to bite him once the kid is in college.

Wright understands that other programs might have a better chance to get elite players with promises of playing time or scoring opportunities or their history of producing one-and-done players.

He wouldn't promise Jalen Brunson, a five-star high school guard and an All-American candidate this season, that he would start as a freshman. Wright wouldn't promise him anything.

"Other places said I would be their guy from day one," Brunson said. "For the most part, kids come here knowing it's different. The whole attitude is really like a mindset. It's something you can instill in somebody, but you kind of have to have it in you."

Villanova's way of recruiting is clearly working.

Of teams in the top six conferences, not one is close to Villanova's winning percentage over the past five years.

Arizona is next on the list, winning 83.3 percent of its games and 81.4 percent in conference play. Virginia has won 81 percent of its games and 80.2 percent in ACC play. Kentucky and Kansas round out the top five over the past five years. And none of those four has won a national championship during that time span.

Of teams that have won the national championship, Duke has won 78.2 percent of its games but only 69 percent of its conference games. North Carolina has made two Final Fours in the past five years, but the Tar Heels have won 76.1 percent of their total games and 71.3 percent in ACC play. Connecticut, which has struggled considerably since winning a national championship, has won just 62 percent of its games over the past five years.

If the argument is extended to teams in the top 10 conferences, Gonzaga and Wichita State enter the conversation. Both the Bulldogs and Shockers have higher winning percentages in conference play, but Gonzaga has won 86.5 percent of its overall games and Wichita State 85.6 percent -- both behind Villanova.

Some will point to the Big East as the reason behind Villanova's gaudy record, but that wouldn't hold up when factoring in Villanova's national championship and record in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, the Big East's average rank in both the RPI and KenPom over the past five years is 3.2.

By all accounts, Villanova has become the most consistently successful program in college basketball.

"We could lose that winningest percentage thing in a second ..." Wright said. "But that doesn't mean we don't enjoy what we're doing. That doesn't mean we're not getting better.

"If when we're done, and somebody says, 'Hey, there was a run, where you ...' I'll be like, 'That was really cool. That was really cool.'"

The biggest moment in Wright's time at Villanova came with 4.7 seconds left in the 2016 national championship game.

But if you ask Wright, it wasn't the Kris Jenkins 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave Villanova the title over North Carolina.

It was the huddle after Marcus Paige hit a double-pump 3-pointer to tie the game.

Heads weren't down, players weren't sulking. No one was pointing fingers or bemoaning the fact that Paige made that shot. Villanova had blown a 10-point lead, yet there was no sign in the huddle that momentum was lost. The players walked to the huddle clapping and repeating one of the program's mantras: Attitude. Attitude.

"Whatever happened before that, we can't do nothing about that," Hart said. "We can't go back 10 seconds and reverse what happened. Only thing we could have controlled was that 4.7 seconds left."

"It was honestly one of the calmer huddles that we've had," Brunson added.

Every player on the team knew what play they were going to run. They practiced it every day that season. Had there been under four seconds left, it would have been another play. But between four and seven seconds remaining, it was Arcidiacono dribbling downcourt off an Ochefu screen and reading the defense to see whether he should pitch it to Jenkins for a 3-pointer.

During the NCAA tournament, timeouts last a little longer.

Wright had nothing to say for those two minutes. He didn't need to say anything. He drew up the play just to pass the time.

On the biggest stage in college basketball, Wright saw that his message of culture and attitude and always playing Villanova basketball had gotten through.

"The huddle was heaven for me," Wright said. "I was euphoric."

Now the Wildcats are 24-3, a clear-cut No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and capable of adding another parade to Philadelphia's calendar.

Had the Eagles won the Super Bowl 10 years ago, Wright might have gone to that victory parade.

But Wright's mission is no longer about getting himself or the program out there. He's turned down overtures from Kentucky and NC State, among other schools. He's gone back to recruiting players who fit the Villanova culture -- even if a few of them are still five-star prospects.

Wright has even tried to mute some of his signature sideline suits. He still uses his Italian tailor in Philadelphia -- he last bought a suit off the rack while he was coaching at Hofstra from 1994 to 2001 ("That's embarrassing.") -- but he's trying to tone it down. Fewer bold pinstripes, maybe fewer three-piece ensembles.

His tailor disagrees.

"We've got a reputation," he's told Wright.

Wright is familiar with reputations -- his own, that of the Villanova program -- and he's not letting either one change anytime soon.