Like his players, Villanova keeps coming back

NEW ORLEANS – Tim Thomas still holds a unique distinction in the history of Villanova’s men’s basketball program. Thomas, a 6-foot-10 n...


NEW ORLEANS – Tim Thomas still holds a unique distinction in the history of Villanova’s men’s basketball program.

Thomas, a 6-foot-10 native of Paterson, NJ, is the only player to declare for the NBA Draft after just one season on campus. Thomas left Villanova after the 1996-97 season, and the New Jersey Nets selected him seventh overall before trading him to Philadelphia.

At the time, Thomas could have gone straight from high school to the NBA. Beginning with the 2006 draft, all players had to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school to be eligible.

“I was a professional guy trying to go to college and I chose Nova,” Thomas said in a phone interview this week.

In the 25 years since he left the program, Villanova has succeeded at the highest level of college play – the Wildcats have won two of the last five national championships – and produced a steady stream of prospecting prospects. the NBA, but nobody did. made players. As the Wildcats head into this weekend’s Final Four, coach Jay Wright’s approach stands in stark contrast to those of the other three programs here. Duke, North Carolina and Kansas have all had their share of unique talent over the years. Led by coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will retire after this tournament, Duke’s current roster has three freshmen who are expected to be first-round picks this summer.

“One of the things we really try to focus on at Villanova is authenticity,” Wright, who has been Villanova’s head coach since 2001 and is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, said this week. “We’re not trying to outdo Kentucky Kentucky, or outdo Duke Duke. We have great respect for these programs. We have always tried to be the best Villanova possible.

Wright instilled several ideals: emphasizing program players over individual stars, executing an offensive system that includes guards who can post and shoot, placing team defense, rebounding and culture on the personal branding. It’s common for Villanova’s best players to be juniors, seniors or, as is the case this year with point guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels, graduate students. In an interview with ESPN on Tuesday night, Gillespie described the Villanova culture: “We have a saying, ‘Everyone’s status is the same but their role is different’, and we live by that. We treat everyone the same. And I think that’s part of the reason why the coach has built something really special here.

“Everyone should applaud what they built there,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose teams lost to eventual champion Wildcats in the 2016 and 2018 NCAA Tournaments. Saturday in the national semi-final. “And of course Jay is the point guard. You have to beat them, they don’t beat themselves.

The figures speak for themselves on several levels.

There are nine former Villanova players in the NBA, tied with Virginia for most of any school without any one-and-dones.

Wright said he “would love” to be able to sign unique players, but he just couldn’t find the right fit. (Omari Spellman, the former Villanova forward who now plays in South Korea after competing in the NBA, was a redshirt freshman and therefore not an outright when he entered the draft in 2018. )

Bryan Antoine, a junior guard, was flagged as a one-time potential player when he arrived at Villanova, but injuries hampered his career and kept him from leaving early.

“We always want unique guys if they want to be part of the Villanova culture,” Wright said this week. “We still want them, so I’m not saying we don’t. We were just able to stick to what we were doing in the beginning.

In the era of one-and-done, only Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 have won a national title while relying heavily on one-and-done in their starting lineups. North Carolina won the title in 2017 with one-time big man Tony Bradley coming off the bench; it was Carolina’s first one-and-done in a decade. The university had seven under Roy Williams, its coach from 2003-21. Virginia in 2019 and Baylor in 2021 both had multiple future pros, but not unique freshmen.

“I think the reason the Dukes and Kentuckys won it, and I really mean it, I don’t think anyone understands how hard it is to coach freshmen in high-level games. level,” Wright said at the 2018 tournament. “I don’t care if they’re good. I don’t care if it’s LeBron. You just weren’t expected to have the kind of detail needed to play. And I think John and Coach K do the best job of that.

He added: “And then there’s only a limited number of these guys who are unique and are capable of winning national championships.”

This is especially true this year. The sport is filled with experienced teams made up of fifth-year seniors and players who don’t have to miss a year after their transfer. Duke, North Carolina and Kansas also have their share of veterans. Self pointed out in a video press conference on Tuesday that his team includes senior guard Ochai Agbaji, one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy as National Player of the Year; senior forward David McCormack and junior guard Christian Braun.

Villanova’s roster has no one jumping as a future NBA star but Gillespie, Samuels and junior guard Justin Moore (who tore his Achilles tendon in the Round of 16 and is out for the season ) all have professional potential.

“Villanova under Jay Wright was able to accomplish three very difficult things,” said Chris Ekstrand, an NBA basketball operations consultant whose job involves the draft. “One, to successfully sign talented and smart players. Second, to develop the skills as well as the basketball IQ of these players. And three, to keep these players for several years.

Wright said an inflection point for the program came in 2013, when the Big East Conference disbanded and universities with football programs, like Syracuse and Pittsburgh, moved to larger leagues that generated more income from football.

At one point, Wright felt unsure of where Villanova would end up, and he and his team knew they might have to drastically alter their recruiting and training philosophies, perhaps focusing more on the unique players.

But once the new Big East settled in as a collection of basketball-centric schools, adding Butler, Xavier, and Creighton — Midwestern universities that weren’t in the original geographic footprint of the conference – and signature of a 500 million dollar agreement over 12 years with Fox Sports adding to the visibility and stability of the league, Wright chose a new course for Villanova.

“We are in this league,” he said. “Let’s start by trying to be the best in this league.”

Since the formation of the new Big East, Villanova has dominated the league, winning at least a share of seven regular-season conference titles and winning five conference tournament titles, including this year’s championship. And, of course, there are the four Final Four appearances in the last 13 tournaments and the two NCAA championships.

Still, Thomas would like to see his old program add some unique talent.

“If we’re going to have to play Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and North Carolina almost every year, and those teams are loaded with five or four professional guys, then why not have one or two of those guys to maintain that level of consistency? he said. “But to Jay’s credit, what he was able to do with the guys who stayed in school for a few years and developed, it’s amazing, it’s really amazing.”

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