It was called the War in the Woods, and though it wasn’t technically a war (it was a basketball tournament), it was most definitely in the woods. “Like eight courts in some dude’s backyard. There were bugs. It was hot. Just out there sweating, getting eaten alive.’’ This is Joe Jones’s recollection of the New York event that Rich Marcucci ran in the 1990s, back when Jones was an assistant coach at Hofstra. Jones, who can spin a good story, is just getting started. “This was before the rules,’’ the Boston University coach continues. “So the first game is at like 8 in the morning and the last one doesn’t begin until 11:30 at night and you’re out there all day, dying. And this guy, he’s out there all day. All day.’’
At this, Jones thumbs to his right, where Villanova coach Jay Wright, the only man capable of sporting a pair of skinny-jean sweatpants, is watching the latest class of would-be college basketball players at Peach Jam. The two have been yukking it up in the seats under one of the baskets for a good hour, but when Wright takes a break to chat with Kyle Neptune, one of his assistants, Jones, 52, uses the opportunity to revisit the inglorious days. He recalls their early years together, when both men were young (Wright, then the coach at Hofstra, was just 32) and desperate to make an impact. They took transfers and kids who were good enough to play basketball if only marginally good enough to pass academically, and flew around like whirling dervishes, trying to do everything but focusing on nothing. Eventually Wright had an epiphany. He sized up the players he’d chosen and the path he was on and found both distasteful and more, untenable. “I can’t do this,’’ he told Jones. He turned his recruiting philosophy around on a dime, reprioritizing what he was looking for and finding it all in a 5-foot-11 guard out of Hempstead, N.Y. His name was Craig Claxton. Everyone called him Speedy. “When we started, we didn’t know what we were doing,” Jones says. “We had kids who didn’t go to class, who didn’t want to go to class. He wants kids who are hungry and have humility, and if you’re not, it’s not going to work. That’s why once we got Speedy, it was over.’’
…Yet when asked to identify the types of players they are looking for, Neptune and fellow Villanova assistant George Halcovage parrot Jones’s description almost word-for-word. “We want guys who want to be pushed, who aren’t afraid to work hard, and who recognize they are part of something bigger than themselves,’’ Halcovage says.
At Villanova, they call such guys “Villanova Basketball Players,’’ a maddening and ambiguous term I’ve heard for so long that I’ve developed a Pavlovian eye-roll reaction to it. Within the Villanova circle, though, it means something. A VBP is as distinguishable as a dominant genetic trait, the rolled tongue/widow’s peak/cleft chin of college hoops. And whatever you might think of the idealistic definition, VBPs have combined for an unprecedented level of success in recent years, their record of 165-21 since 2013 ranking as the single greatest five-year stretch in modern basketball history, with of course, two national championships in the last three years to boot. Four years ago plenty of people questioned whether the Wildcats — and all of the Big East, for that matter — could sustain national relevance in the financially changing and challenging world of college basketball. Today Villanova is held up as the gold standard, with others wondering if they can emulate what Wright has created.
So in an effort to figure out the secret to Villanova’s success and on a more personal note, to solve the riddle of the Villanova Basketball Player, I spent three days at Peach Jam picking the brains of Neptune and Halcovage, two of the three assistants (Mike Nardi was at another event) charged with perpetuating the Wildcats’ standards.
After Villanova’s 2016 title run, pundits marveled that the Wildcats were able to win it all without a single draft pick on the roster. Turns out, they were wrong. They had four, in fact: Josh Hart, drafted 30th overall in 2017; Jalen Brunson, the 33rd pick this year; Mikal Bridges, a lottery selection at No. 10; and Donte DiVincenzo, a redshirt that season and the 17th pick this year. Plus, there were two undrafted free agents. Ryan Arcidiacono played 24 games this season with the Chicago Bulls, and Daniel Ochefu appeared in 19 for the Washington Wizards. Those players, however, left campus in a slow drip instead of a massive wave, adding to the misconception that this was a program bereft of NBA talent but allowing for the luxury of sustainable experience at the college level. But with four guys departing early this year (including DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman unexpectedly), Villanova now has a young roster and a trail of questions. More than one coach at Peach Jam wondered if the Wildcats were going to become susceptible to the same affliction that has hurt so many other programs — roster churn.
That’s what makes this recruiting cycle so interesting for Villanova. The coaches will mine for the same sort of players as always, but can they maintain the continuity that’s made the Wildcats so lethal? Two national titles and four NBA Draft picks this year make a program more attractive eye candy to recruits who otherwise might not have put Villanova on their list. The coaches swear that’s fine, that they are hardly averse to players with NBA aspirations. “We want guys who want to get to the NBA,’’ Neptune says. “Without that carrot, how will you do what’s necessary to be excellent?” Villanova merely asks that when a player commits to Villanova, he commits wholly to Villanova for however long he’s on campus. Brunson for example, was never staying for his senior season. He had put together a three-year degree program so that he could leave after his junior season, diploma in hand. Yet on the way to the NBA, he not only earned his own accolades — consensus player of the year honors this season — he also led his team to a national title.
Villanova knows from experience the other way doesn’t work, at least not for Wright and his staff. They are loathe to talk about it, in part because it was a while ago and also because it’s hard to paint the picture of what went wrong without making it sound as if players were to blame. Except it is an important hiccup to remember, especially this year, when the same temptations will loom.
After the 2009 Final Four, Villanova went on a mini spiral, its results devolving three years later into a 13-19 season in which the Wildcats lost nine of their final 12 games. “That was so hard for me to watch,’’ Jones says. “To this day, I can watch a game and know — that guy is buying in, or that guy isn’t. I could tell they weren’t together then.’’ Wright, who left Hofstra for Villanova in 2001, has since blamed himself and a lack of focus, explaining he brought in good kids who weren’t educated on the program culture as well as they should have been.
But how can you possibly know a kid’s true intent? NCAA rules have severely limited the amount of time a coach can talk to a player. Everyone mentions relationships in recruiting, but it’s more like speed dating. Coaches are left to consider on-court mannerisms and body language and behavior and the veracity of other people’s impressions as much as their own personal interactions. A bad date is easy to rectify. Choosing the wrong recruit isn’t so easy to undo. “The hardest thing to pick up on is, do they understand how hard they have to work?’’ Neptune says. “There’s no way they know what they’re in for. I don’t care how good you were in high school, or how tough you thought your coach was, it’s nothing like what you go through in college. If a guy gets his butt kicked one day, will he come back mentally tough the next day? Or what if he gets his butt kicked for two weeks, which isn’t unusual, will he stay focused or will he get down on himself? That’s stuff you can’t know, and if it goes bad, it can be really bad.’’
Neptune and Halcovage say that’s why they pull no punches with recruits. They promise only that the experience will be grueling. They guarantee neither playing time nor a starting position. They explain that while Wright rarely will yank a kid for a questionable shot, he will pull him in a heartbeat for lack of effort or selfishness. They explain that players are as likely to be lectured on expectations from former players as the coaching staff, and that the alumni deserve just as much respect as the guys in charge. Above all else, they make sure they know the uber-friendly gentlemen dressed to the nines will not be the same guy who shows up at practice. Wright’s sweats may be as superbly fitted as his suits, but he is not on the court to be anyone’s friend. “You think you’re going to come in and change him or he’s going to compromise?” Jones says. “Uh-uh. It’s not going to happen. You are not going to win that fight.’’ In 2004 most everyone told Wright not to take Kyle Lowry, and for the majority of Lowry’s two years on campus, Wright didn’t disagree. He believed surrounding Lowry with talented but amenable players would work, and while it did soften Lowry’s edges, nothing could change his personality. He thinks like he plays — stubbornly, and without apology. He questioned everything and demanded answers. “Because I said so,’’ was never good enough. Player and coach butted heads repeatedly, with Wright tossing Lowry from practice more times than either cares to recall. Not once did Wright chase after his star point guard, instead waiting for Lowry to return, conciliatory, it not entirely repentant. This year, Lowry, now an all-star for the Toronto Raptors, made a $1 million donation to Villanova.
Neptune and Halcovage both dispute the current stereotype, that kids don’t want to work hard. To make it as a Division I basketball player requires a certain amount of dedication; getting by on God-given talent is rarely enough. But they do understand how one showcase camp after another, being brought up in a system that ranks players and thereby inflates egos, can run counter to producing players who intuitively play selfless basketball.
That’s why it helps to understand what works in a program and what doesn’t — to have an identity, if you will. Look at Villanova’s stats from this season, and you can see the Wildcats’ identity. Six guys finished in double figures (everyone can score); all six shot 36 percent or better from the arc (they’re position-less); as a team, more than half of the made buckets came off of an assist (655 of 1,220), and the sixth man averaged more minutes than two starters (no one cares about individual achievements). That has essentially been Wright’s mantra for years, all the way back to the days when the Wildcats had to be remade after Curtis Sumpter tore his ACL and Jason Fraser was sidelined by microfracture surgery. Left with little recourse and a bevy of guards, the Wildcats in 2006 won 28 games with 6-foot-4 Randy Foye and the 6-foot Lowry as their second- and third-leading rebounders. “Winning a national championship doesn’t change our recruitment process,’’ says Halcovage. “We’re doing the same things now we always did, looking for the same kind of guys.’’
NCAA rules prohibit the coaches from talking about recruits specifically, but it is interesting to watch Halcovage and Neptune watch games. Like most coaches sitting in a gym featuring rising seniors, the Villanova coaches are essentially babysitting. The idea that July recruiting is about evaluation is a fallacy. Most players already have committed to programs, or at least listed their top choices, and the coaches are in the gym primarily to make sure the players (and their families and handlers) know they’re still interested. (Think middle school, back when you wanted to make sure the cute boy/girl saw you.) But the coaches do notice when a kid’s effort lags or his shoulders sag. They watch how he interacts with his coaches and his teammates and take note of the smart extra pass as much as they do the monster dunk. “We’re not unique,’’ Halcovage says. “Everyone wants that complete player.’’
Where Villanova separates itself, at least in part, is in its unwillingness to waver. Since that bad post-2009 run, Wright has fiercely guarded his own principles, insisting that he defines success on sustaining the culture and a climate he wants, as opposed to a win-loss record. He has steadfastly refused to recruit players he’s “supposed” to recruit or get into battles for a player so he can be mentioned in the same breath as other top-level programs. “Because Jay has such an unwavering belief in what he’s doing it’s so easy,’’ Jones says. “You know what he wants because he doesn’t change, but do you know how hard that is to do? Do you know how many times I think, What would Jay do? But then I have a hard time doing it like he would. It’s so hard to stick to what you believe in when you need to win games.’’
That the method has worked so outlandishly well helps even more. Consider that DiVincenzo, the Most Outstanding Player in this year’s Final Four, had offers from Boston College, Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. The only other schools that recruited Bridges, ranked 82nd in his class, were Temple, Saint Joseph’s, Xavier and George Washington. “When we look at guys, sometimes he happens to be ranked in the top 10 and sometimes he’s top 50, and we give zero thought to that,’’ Neptune says. “We’re never going to take a top-10 kid over a top-150 kid just because he’s top 10. We’re going to take the kid who’s right for our program. I mean, who does these rankings anyway?”
There is, for Villanova, just one real deal-breaker in recruiting: a lousy official visit. While the coaches refuse to be influenced by outsiders, they will heed their own players’ feedback. Though rare, the staff has been known not to offer a recruit if the players don’t feel comfortable during his visit. “The last thing we’d ever want is for one of our guys to be like, Why’d you bring this dude here? He’s not what we’re all about,’’ Neptune says. “People have to fit. Chemistry is a weapon.’’