Friday, May 24, 2024





VILLANOVA

VILLANOVA, Pa. – The new block of cement, untouched by time or the elements, proudly proclaims in all capital letters the space between the Finneran Pavilion and the Davis Center as Wright Way. It is an homage to Jay Wright, the man who took Villanova to two national titles and four Final Fours and spearheaded the fundraising for both the arena renovations and construction of the practice facility.Drop the “W,’’ and you have a different meaning. The Wright Way became synonymous with the Right Way, not just on the leafy Main Line campus but across the world of college basketball. “Villanova basketball,’’ originally a vacuous empty threat of a catchphrase for players schooled in the art of being unquotable, eventually morphed into something with real meaning. Villanova basketball became recognizable, and above all else, successful. Tough defense, guards who butted their way into the low post, sharp shooters, a team that rarely beat itself and a roster built methodically and systematically, sustained by players who firmly planted two sneakers in the college game. While the rest of the sport chronically reinvented itself, at first chasing one-and-done payoff before flipping for four-year stability, Wright remained committed to a system that initially worked for him and Villanova, but ultimately just worked.In 21 years with the Wildcats, he won 520 games and lost just 197 before stunningly announcing his retirement in April 2022. On the same day Wright said goodbye, Villanova introduced his replacement, the school’s ability to keep the whole thing quiet only slightly less shocking than Wright’s actual retirement. Kyle Neptune had less head coaching experience than his predecessor (one year to Wright’s seven) but, like Wright, had cut his teeth on the Nova bench. Neptune began his coaching career in 2008 as Wright’s video coordinator. He was born into the family.Though they took over the same job, they did not inherit the same position. Wright arrived to a team that hadn’t made it beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a decade and was 0 for its last two Marches. He had room to grow.Wright’s Right Way already paved for him, Neptune was introduced 20 days after the Wildcats lost in the national semifinal. He only had room to fail.Let’s start by taking off the rose-colored glasses. Wright’s tenure at Villanova was not a brilliant, seamless plan executed to near perfection. It was bumpy. Sold on a hot recruiting class in year one that failed to deliver anything more than three NIT bids, the fan base wanted him fired in year four; fell in love with him after a 2009 Final Four run; questioned his commitment when that devolved into a 13-19 finish in 2012; second-guessed his legitimacy when bloated regular-season records faded into three consecutive first-week NCAA Tournament exoduses; rejoiced after Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer beater in 2016; and finally, in 2018, held Wright up as the modern-era Dr. Naismith when the Wildcats buzz-sawed the competition en route to their second title in three seasons.This is presented as evidence to the gentleman at the Wells Fargo Center who, as Villanova trailed UCLA 29-24 with 16 seconds left in the first half of a game it ultimately would win, screamed “FIRE NEPTUNE!’’ It also serves his compatriots who have caterwauled on social media, threatened to revoke donations or cease attending games until Villanova gives Neptune, 45 games into his career, a pink slip.To be fair, the results have not been up to the Villanova standard: 17-17 in an injury-plagued first season and a confounding 7-4 mark to date in year two, a record that includes wins over North Carolina, UCLA and a title at the Battle 4 Atlantis, yet losses to Penn, St. Joe’s and Drexel. “We’ve had every single emotion and every single possible experience you can have as a team so far,’’ Neptune says. “Literally everything and anything. But no season has ever been like, ‘Oh well, you’ve won every game by 30 points and walked off and won the championship.’ At least not to my knowledge.“As a coach, you expect the unexpected and I’m not surprised by anything. You could have a leprechaun walk through here right now, and I’be like, ‘Alright.’’There is, however, barring a cataclysmic cultural implosion, scandal or leprechaun invasion, absolutely zero chance Villanova fires Neptune. Less than zero. The Athletic has spoken to people in and around college basketball, Philadelphia and Villanova, all of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely. They all agree on one thing: Neptune isn’t going anywhere. Nor do they believe he should.Just as then-athletic director Vince Nicastro never even toyed with firing Wright through the early bumps and the late March struggles, the sources confirm what should seem obvious: Firing Neptune is not even on the radar of current AD Mark Jackson. This is not Texas A&M football. This is, once again, Villanova basketball, and the term extends beyond the court itself; it is how the school and the athletic department does business. The last time Villaova fired a coach — not just a basketball coach, any coach — was in 2016, when it quietly opted to not renew the contract of baseball coach Joe Godri. Among coaches of the school’s most successful sports (men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s basketball, and football),Wright, 21 years in upon his retirement, was still the newbie. Jay Wright (left) and Kyle Neptune, reuniting this month at the Wells Fargo Center, took over the same job — but found themselves in very different situations. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)Have there been golden parachutes, or mutually agreed upon exoduses? Yes, but they’ve been handled graciously, sometimes to a fault. Consider: Even as the shine faded on Rollie Massimino’s 1985 glory and devolved into a combustible heap of misery, Massimino wrote his ticket out — to UNLV. Villanova did not shove him. Nine years later, the chair warmed under Steve Lappas while Wright, then the head coach at Hofstra, was wooed by Rutgers. Even though Villanova wanted desperately to bring their former assistant home, the school waited, giving Lappas the grace of finding his own exit strategy. Only once Lappas went to UMass did Villanova call Wright.Whacking Neptune is more anathema to Villanova than not playing hard, smart and together. If anything, insiders are more worried about him beating himself up than the athletic department reading him the riot act. There is no escaping the standard he is meant to achieve. The entire lobby of the Finn is a museum to the Wildcats’ success, much of it earned under Wright. His staff is filled with Villanova grads or former assistants who have won at exceptionally high levels. Neptune is not married. He is not, those who know him say, a man with a ton of outside hobbies. “All he does is basketball,’’ says one person close to Neptune, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “You worry he’s not too consumed by it.’’He does not seem to be, at least not publicly. He comes off as calm and fairly unflappable, if maybe a little bristly when questions arise about his team’s failures.Asked if beating UCLA was a “must win,’’ Neptune said, “No. We look at every game as the biggest game of the year. Whatever that means to you guys, great. We play our next game, that’s our biggest game of the year.’’ On a scale of one to Jim Boeheim, it hardly registers, but definitely pointed.Neptune parrots a lot of Wright’s truisms: About relying on defense and rebounding and living with missed shots; about not getting caught up in a record but rather worrying about progressing. He is not, however, the same person, which — unfairly — works against him. Wright entered a room like Elvis, but acted more like a Walmart greeter. Everyone wanted to meet Wright, and Wright made everyone feel like he’d known them his whole life. It was his personality, but also part of his job description. Wright needed to reinvigorate a fan base, engage the larger Philadelphia community and connect a disjointed basketball family, so he stumped, charmed, joked and glad handed.Neptune has the fan base. They don’t want to be charmed; they want results.To be clear, there is cause for complaint. Villanova has lost games it does not, and frankly, should not, lose. The last time the Wildcats lost to


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