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Villanova is thriving with the Wright stuff

Jay Wright, a rising star in the vanguard of Big East coaches, has Villanova in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years. Jay Wright, a rising star in the vanguard of Big East coaches, has Villanova in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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The Big East always has been a coach's league. Dave Gavitt, Rollie Massimino, John Thompson, and Lou Carnesecca gave way to Jim Calhoun and Jim Boeheim, who have been joined by Jamie Dixon and John Thompson III.

And Jay Wright, who since 2001 has done the X's and O's as head coach at Villanova, has picked up the Big East torch.

As the NCAA Tournament moves into its Sweet 16 phase, with East Regional games slated for TD Banknorth Garden Thursday and Saturday night, Wright will bring his team from the Main Line of Philadelphia to Boston, seeking to move to the next level.

Again.

If there is a rising superstar among the next generation of college coaches who will look to replace Hall of Famers such as Calhoun at UConn, Boeheim at Syracuse, and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke (also coming to Boston, to face the Wildcats Thursday night), it is Wright.

At 47, Wright has the look - custom-tailored suits that could make him a cover boy for GQ Magazine - as well as the résumé. Remarkably, he is making his fourth Sweet 16 appearance in five years.

It's always been that way for Jerod Taylor Wright, who was voted "Best Dressed" at Council Rock (Pa.) High School, and went to Bucknell as a Sigma Chi fraternity boy with a winning smile and a brighter personality.

Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who must deal with Wright and Villanova each year in one of the Big Five's most heated rivalries, told SI.com, "Jay builds relationships. He's eager and interested in knowing you, whether you are a writer or a truck driver. We all should have that ability, but we don't."

Wright came out of Bucknell in 1983 not sure what he was going to do or where he was going to do it. As a Pennsylvania kid with a feel for people, he took on a job in marketing for the Philadelphia Stars of the US Football League. Once on a promotional tour, the Stars mascot didn't show up, so Wright donned the costume and sold tickets.

At his first head coaching job, at Hofstra in 1994, Wright tried to boost attendance by putting a Post-It note on each seat in the Hofstra arena with an offer to exchange the Post-It for a season ticket.

For the past eight years, Wright has become the face of Villanova basketball. His wife, Patty, is a former Villanova cheerleader. Three children, Taylor (15), Colin (14), and Reilly (9), fill a Main Line Philadelphia house less than 2 miles from campus with the sounds and sights of an American success story. And then there is a contract through the 2012-13 season that will pay Wright more than $1.5 million a year.

Wright always has seized the moment. At Hofstra, then part of the America East, Wright tried to reach higher.

"I loved Hofstra," he said. "I really thought I was going to stay there and turn it into a program like Gonzaga."

Moving to the Big East has given Wright more opportunities. He flirted with UMass and Rutgers before coming to Villanova. And while the ride has been Main Line smooth for the most part, there have been some speed bumps, such as a phone card scandal in the athletic department a few years ago.

But it is the Big East, and the Wildcats have become NCAA Tournament fixtures.

While the pressure to succeed remains high, there is more margin for error in the Big East. You can finish second, third, or fourth and still be a lock for a tournament bid (seven conference teams made it this year). It also toughens you for the rigors of NCAA play. After beating American University and UCLA last week, the Wildcats are one of five Big East teams - an NCAA record - to make the Round of 16.

The team Wright brings to Boston could be his best ever, loaded with experience and talent; the win over UCLA was the 100th for the seniors.

Wright said one of the keys is not to look too far beyond the next game - essential in the Big East.

"The thing about this group that really impressed me is their ability to prepare for the next game as if it's the biggest game of their life," said Wright. "We've done it all year. This senior class, this has been their strength - preparing one game at a time.

The Wildcats do not suffer from false modesty. They have competed successfully in the Big East. They have beaten the No. 1 seed in the East, Pittsburgh.

Asked if he had a sense of how good Villanova is, guard Scottie Reynolds said, "I have an idea. I don't think we're the best team we can be yet."

Wright feels the same way. He sees progress, but feels the Wildcats have not hit their peak. He also knows that the incline gets much steeper this week: Duke on Thursday, and possibly a rematch with Pittsburgh Saturday night. Win those, and the Wildcats could find two or even three of their Big East playmates waiting at the Final Four.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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