Mike Jensen, Philly.com (http://www.philly.com/philly/sports/colleges/377813511.html)
Yes, Jay Wright said the other day, more recruits are more receptive to calls from Villanova right now. Even the five-star guys who have variations of Kentucky and North Carolina and Kansas and Duke on their lists. Obviously, this is not a bad thing for ‘Nova’s program to be at the top of the mountain as recruits, mostly from the college class of 2021, mull their savory choices.
However, Villanova’s coach only has to look back at recruiting after his team made the Final Four in 2009 to know he has to manage it right. Wright hasn’t forgotten that three years after that Final Four, his Wildcats finished 13-19. It’s a subject he doesn’t shy away from in conversation.
Odds of that happening again after a national title? You can’t say it’s 0.0 percent, since Villanova finished 15-16 in 1986-87, two seasons after the school’s other national title. But it’s about as close as you can get to 0.0 since Wright long ago diagnosed issues that brought Villanova temporarily down after its last Final Four.
“Last time we didn’t take the responsibility of explaining – we didn’t do a good enough job of explaining to our recruits what our culture was and what we expected before they got here,” Wright said. “We were just overly excited about the quality of players we could get and thought we could figure it out once they got here.”
Wright brings up the next season, 2009-10, when everything looked great: Villanova started out 20-1.
“Playing 11 guys – that was fun and we were winning,” Wright said. “But it didn’t fit our culture.” By that, Wright said, he meant playing so many guys, “in the long term, everyone wasn’t developing the way we wanted them to. It was on us. They’re just kids coming to play. It was on us.”
Wright had talked about this after Villanova hit bottom with that 13-19 season in 2011-12. Since then, although Villanova didn’t get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament before this year, it won more games in each successive season. Clearly the recruiting and development aspect went right back on the uptick.
Wright has always been an expert at figuring out who can live with coming off his bench for a season. But who can live with not playing much at all?
“It’s harder on us because we’re going to have to pass on some guys that want to come, that we know are great players,” Wright said. “We’ve got to be disciplined in not putting those great players in a difficult position, where there are too many players.”
Yes, that’s a rich guy’s problem. It’s still a problem. During the NCAA tournament, Wright talked about how the staff told Phil Booth and Ja’Quan Newton that it had a spot for the first player to commit. Booth was ready to do that, Newton wasn’t, and he went to Miami. Worked out for both.
It’s not always the top target, the highest-rated guy, who turns out to be the difference maker. Go back a few years. The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, had Villanova on their list, although never at the top of it, before going to Kentucky, which worked out for them. Would Villanova have been better off having those guys for a year or two, or a couple of guys who ended up choosing Villanova that year? Guys named Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.
Looking at the school’s current roster and those committed to showing up, Villanova’s future clearly looks bright. Also, Wright certainly didn’t shy away from taking Jalen Brunson because he already had Booth. Depth of talent took Villanova through this year’s tournament, right to the last minutes. (No Booth and Mikal Bridges, no NCAA title.)
Wright used the term “roster-structuring,” describing how to explain specific roles to recruits “before they got here. We’ve been doing that for the last five years, but we’ve got to keep doing it.”
All this sounds fine and dandy. But recruiters, basically by definition, have to be salesmen. Is it harder to include that conversation about culture and requirements with a five-star recruit as he is being wooed by so many big boys?
“It probably is,” Wright said. “Tougher, and maybe not accepted as frequently.”
But if it is accepted, Wright immediately added, “then we have the right guy.”