I felt like Jay Wright was personally attacking me.
The Villanova head coach has an odd way about him on the sideline, something the world noticed two years ago when Kris Jenkins drained a buzzer-beater to win the 2016 national championship. As fans across America collectively jumped off their couches in shock at one of the greatest finishes in college basketball history, Wright deadpanned the defining moment of his career. For those who follow the Wildcats closely, this aloof demeanor is on display every game. Other coaches spend the better part of 40 minutes shouting at players, conversing with assistants, or barking at referees; Wright, on the other hand, is known to take routine spells to himself. While his Wildcats bring the ball up the court, Wright will sometimes walk toward the baseline, in the opposite direction from the way play is progressing, and stare off into the distance. It seems as if he’s either zoning out or locking in on something about five rows behind Villanova’s basket … which is a little disconcerting if you’ve been assigned to the media seating in the section about five rows behind Villanova’s basket.
When I watched the Wildcats play Marquette at the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden a few weeks ago, I was initially underwhelmed. Wright’s squad was ahead just 46-43 early in the second half in its matchup with an NIT-bound opponent, and I wondered: “Is this really the no. 2 team in the country? This is a legitimate national title contender?”
And then Villanova happened: In 10 minutes and five seconds of game time, the Wildcats went 10-of-14 from 3-point range, with five different players contributing to the beyond-the-arc barrage. What had been a slim advantage suddenly ballooned into a 24-point lead. With about a minute remaining, Wright took another stroll to the end of the bench and stared either directly at me or at some object millions of miles behind my head, and decided it was time to bring in the walk-ons. It felt like Wright had peered into my skull, sensed my doubt, and commanded his players to assert their dominance, something that was made all the more effective by his intermittent and strangely timed staredowns.
Of course, Wright hadn’t noticed me and read my mind, nor does he have the power to compel his team to drain 3-pointers at will. If he did, Villanova’s 2016 national title—a tournament run during which the Wildcats shot 50 percent from long range—wouldn’t be sandwiched between three years in which the Wildcats suffered disappointing losses on the tourney’s opening weekend. This is just what Villanova does: In Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament matchup against Alabama, the Wildcats went 7-of-9 from 3 in a span of six minutes, ultimately turning a five-point halftime lead into a 23-point victory.
Under Wright, Villanova has become a college basketball powerhouse, which may seem unlikely for a small Catholic school with an FCS football team. When Wright took over, the Wildcats hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 in more than a decade, and their lone national championship was considered one of the great upsets in basketball history. But Wright has built a program that consistently outshoots the teams he can’t outrecruit.
Some would measure the success of a college basketball program by the number of NBA draft picks it produces, in which case Villanova is barely relevant. Nova’s last lottery pick was Randy Foye in 2006; the only first-rounder to come out of the school since then was Josh Hart, who was the 30th and final pick of last year’s first round.
Villanova has yet to have a one-and-done player. From 2010 to 2017, there were 205 players listed as five-star recruits, according to 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings. Villanova landed just two, Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman. (A third, Jahvon Quinerly, will join the Wildcats in the 2018 class.) Five schools (Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Missouri, and UCLA) signed at least two five-stars in the 2017 class alone. The Wildcats, meanwhile, hardly recruit nationally: Every scholarship player on their roster except Jermaine Samuels and Brunson went to high school in Pennsylvania or a state that borders it, and Brunson spent most of his childhood in southern New Jersey.
Still, over the past five years, Villanova has compiled the best record in college basketball at a whopping 171-22. The Wildcats are 32-4 this season with just one potential loss remaining on their schedule, meaning they’ll finish with five or fewer losses in five straight seasons. The only other team to have five or fewer losses in even four of the past five seasons is Gonzaga, which plays in the piddly West Coast Conference. (Assessing the standing of Villanova’s conference, the reincarnated Big East, is a matter of much angst. By the makeup of its members—10 private schools, none of which have top-tier football teams—it looks like a mid-major league; by any reasonable basketball-related standard, it is a major conference.)
The Wildcats have done it through offense. Villanova has been ranked in the top five of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense metric for the past four years, coming in fourth, third, third, and first, respectively. And in Wright’s estimation, this is the best offense he’s ever coached—even better than the one that scorched nets en route to a national title two years ago.
There is, it seems, a market inefficiency when it comes to putting together a competitive roster of 17- to 22-year-old basketball players: In 2018, we acknowledge that 3-point shooting has an outsize importance at all levels of the sport, but shooting might be the most difficult trait for elite-level college programs to identify in prospective athletes. You can tell from a young age which players have great athletic traits—it’s easy to identify the muscular 6-foot-8 kids with pogo sticks for legs—yet shooting is a finesse-based skill that players often get exponentially better at after they’ve already enrolled in college, or even after they’ve reached the pros. Sure, you can look at a player’s high school shooting stats and analyze their form on tape. But how can you really know which good athletes will develop the most important skill in basketball slightly better than everyone else?
Wright thinks he knows. “We like to get guys that are basketball junkies. Usually those are pretty good shooters,” he said after Villanova won its Big East quarterfinal matchup with Marquette. “But they don’t have to be great shooters. Because if they’re junkies, and they love being in the gym, they’re smart offensive players, and they’ll develop their shooting.”
Take Mikal Bridges, the best pro prospect Wright has coached in more than a decade. While some top high school recruits see their freshman year as a temporary stopover en route to an NBA gig, Bridges’s freshman year was a means to actually playing at Villanova. He redshirted in 2014-15, a rarity for a heavily recruited player with no eligibility issues, so that he could bulk up and learn to shoot. In his year off from playing, he added 32 pounds and reconstructed his form. “We fell in love with what he could be,” former Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy told Sports Illustrated in December.
Even after redshirting, Bridges wasn’t a lights-out shooter—he shot 29.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first year in Villanova’s rotation, serving as a defensive sub on the 2016 championship squad. DraftExpress wrote in 2016 that Bridges “[had] a lot of room to grow as a shot-maker from the perimeter.” Suffice it to say, he has grown: He was one made 3-pointer away from being a 50-40-90 shooter as a sophomore, and has hit 44.2 percent of his 3s this season. Bridges’s shooting helps the Wildcats in all sorts of critical moments: His knockdown 3 on a busted play in overtime helped Villanova win the Big East tournament title game over Providence, and he’s the one who sparked the hot shooting run against Alabama over the weekend. He scored 19 points in the first 5:30 of the second half, including making 3s on four consecutive Villanova possessions. “Alabama is dead, and Mikal Bridges killed them,” wrote Deadspin.
When asked who the biggest basketball junkie on Villanova’s roster is after the Big East tournament final, though, forward Eric Paschall singled out a different player. “I’d probably say Jalen,” Paschall said. “His pops was in the NBA, he’s been around it forever. He’s always in the gym. He sleeps basketball.”
Jalen’s father, Rick Brunson, was a journeyman in the NBA, bouncing among nine different teams and never averaging more than 5.5 points a game. But he was a certifiable basketball junkie—Wright told SI a story from his tenure as Hofstra’s head coach, when he watched Rick score 19 points in a late-night Blazers-Lakers game in Los Angeles (a career high, as it turned out) and then woke up the next morning to find the same Portland player who scored all those points 3,000 miles away getting shots up in his Long Island gym. Rick, now an assistant with the Timberwolves, coached Jalen Brunson for most of his youth, and instilled that same mentality. “I missed a lot of things socially,” Jalen Brunson said of his late-night workout routines in high school. “It feels like something I love doing, the way some people collect cards or action figures.”
Brunson plays like the son of a journeyman. He isn’t particularly explosive, but he’s perfectly polished. He makes all the right decisions, and his shot is pure. He’s projected to be a second-round NBA draft pick—a step up from his undrafted dad.
It’s not like Villanova is recruiting nobodies—most of the players in its rotation were four-star recruits, and Brunson, as previously noted, was a five-star prospect. But lots of schools trade exclusively in blue-chip recruits, and no coach gets as many shooters as Wright.
Why is this group the best offensive team Wright has ever had? “[We have] five perimeter shooters, but also five guys who can make plays for others,” the coach said a few weeks ago, before pausing. “Actually, we have six, because Donte [DiVincenzo can, too]. They can all put the ball on the floor and pass. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that again.”
The Wildcats can and do use a lineup in which everybody on the floor shoots at least 39 percent from deep: Brunson (42 percent) at point, Phil Booth (39.4 percent) and DiVincenzo (39.1 percent) at the other guard positions, Bridges (44.2 percent) and Spellman (43.8 percent) as the two bigs. Backup guard Collin Gillespie also shoots 39.1 percent from long range, and while big man Paschall isn’t a great shooter, he has made 29 3s this season. Thanks in large part to Bridges’s defensive versatility, the Wildcats have a lineup luxury: Virtually any combination they trot out features five players capable of connecting from beyond the arc.
More than 47 percent of the field goals Villanova has attempted to this point in the season are 3s, 12th nationally and second most of any NCAA tournament team. It also shoots the 11th-best overall percentage from 3, making more than 40 percent of its attempts as a team. Combine a ton of attempts with an impressively high accuracy rate, and Villanova has drilled 419 3-pointers this year. If the top-seeded Wildcats win their Sweet 16 game against no. 5 seed West Virginia on Friday, they’ll have a good chance of breaking the record for 3s in a season, currently held by the 2007 VMI team that attempted 42 per game and managed to hit 441 in total.
What truly sets this Wildcats offense apart is that they’re actually even more efficient inside the arc. Nova has the third-best 2-point-shooting percentage in the nation, hitting 59.5 percent of its attempts. Paschall, the team’s worst 3-point shooter, sinks 64.2 percent of his 2-point tries.
The result is an adjusted offensive rating of 127.6 points per 100 possessions, the best in college basketball by more than four points per 100 possessions. It’s the second-highest mark ever recorded by KenPom’s ratings, behind only the 2014-15 Wisconsin team that beat previously undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four and made the national title game. Nova is so efficient that it leads the nation in points per game (87.1) despite being 175th in tempo. During their 2016 championship run, the Wildcats went 56-of-112 from 3-point range; thus far in this year’s tournament, they’re 31-of-68 from downtown.
Of course, there’s an obvious drawback to Villanova’s approach. While the schools that routinely sign five-star prospects can hope those players simply overpower their opposition when shots aren’t falling, the Wildcats have to shoot. And shooting can be fickle: When Nova lost to seventh-seeded UConn in the 2014 tournament, it went 18-of-51 from the floor. When it lost as a no. 1 seed to eighth-seeded NC State in 2015, the Wildcats were 19-of-61 overall and a dismal 9-of-28 from 3. Last year, the top-seeded Wildcats went 5-of-16 from beyond the arc during a second-round loss to no. 8 seed Wisconsin. Villanova might be better at shooting than any other program, but it still can shoot poorly. In one of its four losses this season, a 76-71 defeat at Providence on February 14, it went 3-of-20 from long range.
I don’t know what Jay Wright is actually thinking when he meanders toward the baseline and stares off into space. But I like to imagine that he thinks about the Villanova dream: for this tiny school in Philadelphia to shoot its way past the blue bloods of college basketball. It happened in 1985, when Nova beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown by shooting an unreal 78 percent from the field in the national title game. It happened two years ago, and it’s four games from happening again now. Wright just needs his shot-makers to keep making shots—and his basketball junkies are better at doing that than anyone else in college basketball.