Come Saturday night, Allan Ray will grab his red marble composition book and his black-ink Sharpie pen, get comfy on the living room couch in his Atlanta home, and fire up his television and his Twitter account for his favorite pastime.

Ray was a member of Jay Wright’s first recruiting class at Villanova, a group that entered the university in 2002 and included Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser, the class that changed everything for the program. But it’s not his 2,025 career points or his upcoming induction into the Big 5 Hall of Fame that makes Ray such a marvelous person to follow on social media. He’s an open and accurate source of deep insight into the strategies that Villanova wields, into the statistics and trends that promise to tell the tale of a particular game against a particular opponent.

Take the Wildcats’ last two opponents: Michigan and Houston. Had you read Ray’s posts, you wouldn’t have been surprised to see 6-foot-7 Jermaine Samuels’ driving past 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson again and again, one left-handed layup after another leading to a 22-point night for Samuels and a 10-point Villanova victory.

“Michigan has a HUGE problem in ball screen defense when Hunter Dickinson is involved,” Ray wrote the night before the game. “IMO he is a liability in P&R and 1on1.”

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He was more partisan in the aftermath of the Wildcats’ win over the Cougars, boiling it down to a one-sided battle of acumen and execution between Jay Wright and Kelvin Sampson. “Coach Wright outcoached Sampson. Jay made sure Houston was not going to play up tempo. … Coach just put him in his place tonight.”

Does he pump Wright and Villanova’s coaching staff for intel and information before he posts? He does not. He does not need to. The Wildcats ran more down screens back when Ray played, to free him up for jumpers and three-pointers. Other than that, little looks different to him.

“If you think about it, I was at Villanova four years,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I learned all of this stuff from these guys. So I’m pretty sure most of the stuff I’m seeing is already on their scouting report anyway. It’s pretty much the same thing.”

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That unbroken thread stretches 20 years now, from what Ray was doing as a player to what he tracks as an amateur analyst, from the first great teams of Wright’s tenure at Villanova to a seven-year stretch that has established him as college basketball’s best coach. Four Sweet 16s, three Final Fours, and at least two national titles since 2016: Wright insists that none of that success would have been possible without that first class of recruits he coaxed to the Main Line. Without Ray and Foye, there are no Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi. Without Lowry and Nardi, no Scottie Reynolds. Without each link in the rest of that chain, no Collin Gillespie, no Jermaine Samuels, no chance at glory again this weekend in the Superdome.

“Every time I text Coach Wright – I swear, every single time – he says that to me,” said Ray, 37, whose NBA career lasted 42 games, who played professionally in Europe and the Middle East for 12 years, and who now sells real estate and is working toward becoming an agent. “He’s like, ‘A-Ray, thanks for laying the foundation. You guys laid the foundation.’ He says that every time. So when I do watch these games, it makes me real proud to see these guys playing, winning national championships, because it wasn’t like that before we got there. Not to throw shade at anybody, but I feel like we really established a culture there at Villanova, and that’s the culture you see today.”

Jay Wright’s first class

Ray was Wright’s first major recruit at Villanova, a skinny guard who could slither to and score from anywhere on the court, toughened by growing up on Anderson Avenue in the Bronx, high on a hill above Yankee Stadium. Kerry Kittles had been his favorite college player – “One sock up, one sock down,” Ray said – and when Joe Jones, a member of Wright’s first staff at Villanova and now the head coach at Boston University, spent a day in Ray’s neighborhood with him, sharing a Chinese-food lunch near the courts at Nelson Playground, the teenager was ready to sign his commitment letter then and there.

“It was the family atmosphere that Coach created within Villanova,” Ray said. “Talking with him, talking with some of the assistant coaches, I felt like I knew these guys for years. That’s how great the atmosphere was.”

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Sumpter, Foye, and Fraser followed, each of them a star at a New York or North Jersey high school, none of them prepared for the demands that Wright would place on them, for the contrast between the counselor he was to them off the court and the madman he was at practice.

“Coming to college and having a coach yell at you because you’re not diving on the ball, you’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Ray said. “So it was a little learning curve for us to be able to get that down, and once we did that, we started to get a little more confidence in ourselves.”

In the narrative of the Wildcats’ rise under Wright, their 83-62 thrashing of No. 2-ranked Kansas in January 2005 is regarded as a turning point, the bullhorn blast announcing the program’s renaissance. But Ray pointed instead to an earlier watershed moment: a 75-74 overtime loss to Connecticut on Feb. 28, 2004. Those Wildcats would finish that season just 18-17, and those Huskies, with four NBA lottery picks on their roster, would win the national championship a month later. “We gave them a run for their money, and we were just puny sophomores,” Ray said. “From there, we realized we could play with anybody.”

A new era

The following season, Villanova won 24 games, reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time under Wright. Only an infamous phantom traveling call on Ray might have kept the Wildcats from upsetting North Carolina and reaching the Elite Eight, and even the slightest mention of that game gets Ray a little heated again over the referee’s error and one analyst’s judgment that the call was correct.

“As I dribbled and picked the ball up, it was two steps,” Ray said. “I don’t know what Bill Raftery was talking about.”

In 2006, Villanova took the next step, riding Wright’s creative four-guard lineup to within one victory of the Final Four, losing to a deeper, superior Florida team. Afterward, the exhausted Wildcats were strewn about their locker room in the Metrodome, IVs forcing fluids into their arms, the scene setting the measure for how far a Villanova team could and should push itself.

“We are forever grateful for them,” Wright said. “I tell them that all the time. ‘We’re standing on your shoulders.’ They always follow everything I say to them with ‘No, if not for you, Coach …’ But it’s not true. If those players don’t choose to come here and don’t allow us to coach them, none of this happens for us.”

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That’s the gentle text-message debate that has taken place after every Villanova victory in this NCAA Tournament, and it will take place again Saturday night should the Wildcats knock off Kansas. Allan Ray will set aside Twitter and his notebook and pen and pick up his phone, and he’ll type out a quick note to his coach, and Jay Wright will write him back. It was you, Coach. … No, it was you guys, A-Ray. An exchange of thank-yous 20 years in the making, a standard 20 years in the maintaining.

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