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Jay Wright holds Zoom court as Villanova’s basketball season comes into focus

"It’s been bizarre,'' the coach said of his team's preparation for the upcoming season. “It’s upside down, like everything in our world.”

Villanova head coach Jay Wright talked about preparing for a season in these strange times.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright talked about preparing for a season in these strange times.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Jay Wright was on a Thursday afternoon Zoom press conference, just a few seconds late unmuting himself and jumping in.

"The team doctor called,'' Villanova’s coach said. “I’m constantly talking to him. It’s about testing. It’s about protocols.”

At one point, Wright was asked if anyone on his staff or his team, or himself, had tested positive for COVID-19.

“No, thank God,'' Wright said. “Not yet.”

This call offered a little window into what it’s been like as Villanova basketball has gotten to campus, and now that the NCAA has come up with Nov. 25 as a starting date for the Division I season, what the priorities look like.

It should be noted that oddsmakers have immediately jumped in and made Villanova one of the two or three national favorites this season.

“I do think they’re ready to handle it,” Wright said of his players. “I don’t know if we’re that good, losing Saddiq …”

Saddiq Bey, of course, left for the NBA after his big, if abbreviated, sophomore season.

“But, I’ll take it,” Wright said of the high expectations. “I do think they’re ready to handle it. They’re a really unique group in that I think we all were very humbled last year in the beginning of the year, in a good way. We got beat up pretty good, which was good, for all of us. And then we battled back, and we felt really good at the end of the year. We felt like we still had to prove ourselves, and we didn’t get a chance to do it, so it’s a group that kind of feels like they’re not proven yet.”

All that is getting ahead of the game, but why not insert a little hoop talk into the “life in a pandemic” talk.

"It’s been bizarre,'' Wright said of having recruits committing without ever going to campus, for instance. “It’s upside down, like everything in our world.”

Testing has been once a week, part of the general campus COVID-19 surveillance plan. “We’re going to go up to three times a week,” Wright said.

Which brings up questions.

“Where do we do it?” Wright said. “How soon do we get the results back? All this stuff. … We’re trying to learn about rapid tests, point-of-care tests. It’s crazy. That’s what we’re talking about every day.”

Since students got back to campus, players have been limited to working in smaller groups.

“Everything’s strange,” Wright said. “Practices are strange. We have four guys who have not played against the other eight guys since we’ve been here, have not had contact with them on the court.”

Then, away from practice …

“We’re asking them to dare to be different,” Wright said. “We’re really trying to create our own bubble as best we can.”

That went as far as choosing dorm rooms.

“End of the hall, three rooms together, purposefully,” Wright said. “We want them to go out that door, not have guests in their apartments. Spend as much time up here at the Davis Center as they can.”

Even players are having Zoom classes. Wright said players are made to come to the Pavilion, to sit there together, distanced, as they take different classes.

“We’re asking them to be really vigilant,” Wright said. “We know if somebody tests positive everyone gets quarantined. It’s a lot of pressure on them.”

Asked about sacrifices during this financial crunch, Wright said top-salaried employees, including him, were asked to take pay cuts.

“I thought it was very compassionate, and very consistent with our Villanova mission,” Wright said.

When this call ended, Wright said, he was jumping on a call that would discuss health protocols related to scheduling. If fans aren’t allowed into games, it makes sense to have all the games on campus. But, Wright pointed out, what if 25% of an arena is allowed to be used?

“We go to Wells Fargo [Center]. That gives more people a chance to see us,” Wright said. “We’re going to wait as long as we can.”

This being Philadelphia, Wright was naturally asked about any interest from the Sixers. He had tweeted how he was staying put.

“We’re all Philly. We all know,” Wright said. “It was starting just to become too much of our daily conversation."

Wright said there was no specific talk with the Sixers about the job except that he and Sixers general manager Elton Brand do talk, and did talk, with Wright telling Brand he was going to put it out there that he wasn’t a candidate to replace the fired Brett Brown.

Thursday morning included an 8 a.m. Big East conference call on scheduling. Getting a league schedule is the starting point, then trying to get as many non-league games as possible. A Big East bubble for some games is on the table. “I think it’s an option, but I don’t think it’s an option we’re leaning toward,” Wright said.

Fair to say, each challenge has sub challenges.

“I think our staff, and probably me, have finally become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Wright said. “We’ve been doing this here for a while. We’ve got a good system in place, a way of doing things, and it’s been totally thrown out the window with all these protocols.”

Wright said in the past he tried not to give his players information unless it was cast in stone. That just doesn’t work right now. He gave the example of giving up on updates as to when they were going to be allowed back on campus. First of July. Then middle of July. Then August.

“I’ve learned to tell them, ‘Look, I’m giving you as much information as I have,’ ” Wright said.

Now at least they have a starting point.

“I think it’s great news for all of us in college basketball,” Wright said.