Jay Wright says his biggest worry for many of his first 19 preseasons as Villanova men’s basketball coach was making sure that his players wouldn’t become stagnant. He’d find ways to keep them fresh so they would be hungry about coming to practice as the days dwindled to the start of a new season.
That’s not the case in 2020, however.
The Wildcats saw their prior season terminated in March because of the pandemic just as they felt they were reaching their peak. The players separated and spent the spring and most of the summer training at home instead of being in the Davis Center around their teammates. They all returned to campus on Aug. 10, being able to work out only in pods of four.
Then last month, they had to pause workouts for 14 days after a few members of their program tested positive for COVID-19. Testing after the quarantine kept them from returning to the court for almost another week, Wright said.
With preseason practice having begun Wednesday, the first time he had all 13 of his players on the court, Wright has found something new this season to worry about.
“Honest to God, I worry about the tests,” he said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I just cringe receiving the test results every day to make sure we’re going to have enough guys to practice. It’s the most important thing I think about. I really don’t worry about anything basketball-wise. I’m always just grateful of every day we get together.
“I’m taking a totally different approach than not worried about being prepared for our first game. I’m more worried that we have 13 guys and everybody’s healthy.”
While confirming “a few” positive tests, Wright said he could not disclose identities of those who tested positive or whether they were players or coaches, citing university protocol.
For Wright, who demands the best of his players in practice and in games, the emphasis this season is health, not the number of wins.
“It’s hard to even hold them responsible for expectations this year because we’re spending all our time trying to stay healthy and being able to practice,” he said. "As a staff, we’re really trying to be smart. It’s a different kind of year. We’ve got to look at their best interests personally, and we’ve got to do the best we can to keep everybody healthy.
“Really, the season is going to be about dealing with obstacles. We’ve talked to them about not holding them responsible for wins and losses. We’ve got to first make sure we’re on the court. Then if we do go through a run where we lose some guys, how do we handle that? Let’s handle that the best we can.”
Wright said he was pleasantly surprised by how hard the players had worked out at home and the improvement they showed after their return. He also liked how the players stayed connected with the help of the entire coaching staff.
“I was probably over-paranoid, as a coach would be, with them coming back, how out of shape they would be, how distanced they would be from our core values,” he said. “I was really impressed with how wrong I was.”
Being a veteran team gives the Wildcats an advantage. They return 11 of their 12 scholarship players from last season, with Saddiq Bey preparing for the NBA draft. The continuity and chemistry are why a number of national college basketball pundits have Villanova in the top five of the rankings, with a few putting them at No. 1.
Wright said he speaks constantly with his players about being responsible, always thinking about their actions and how they could affect their teammates. He said that the Wildcats are “intermittently tested weekly,” and that the NCAA is about to announce when players will start being tested three times a week.
As for scheduling, Wright said that in addition to a 20-game Big East schedule, the Wildcats are “starting to come together” with seven nonconference games, including at least three Big 5 contests.
“Penn can’t really commit yet, so we’re working with the other guys,” Wright said. “Everybody’s working together pretty well. It looks like it’s coming together so far, but you can’t confirm anything yet because the other schools in the nonconference, they can’t confirm anything with you yet.”
For now, Wright said there is a “unique enthusiasm and gratitude and relief” having the entire team back on the court, but with caution.