SAN ANTONIO – Two guys walked around a corner inside the back bowels of the AT&T Center. They started laughing at a sight just past that corner. May as well have been Lancaster Avenue, down by City Line.
“Whitey Rigsby, nice to meet you,” Rigsby said Wednesday, mock introducing himself to Phil Martelli, who was standing down the hallway from Michigan’s locker room.
The Can’t Make This Stuff Up Invitational.
Rigsby was courtside as Villanova’s radio analyst for every game Martelli had coached St. Joseph’s from 1995 through 2019 against ‘Nova.
Those games didn’t come up.
“So my wife is a nurse,” Rigsby said to Martelli, naming the place she works, Camilla Hall. “Is it your aunt that’s there?”
Technically, Thursday’s NCAA Sweet 16 matchup is Michigan against Villanova. The stakes, quite high. The history between the two, important. Around Philadelphia, there’s just this other crazy plot line. Martelli takes on ‘Nova? Nobody in Michigan has to care about that. It’s purely a Philly thing.
“Everybody in Philly is coming out of cars, coming out of buildings, houses,” Jay Wright said this week back on campus about the Martelli factor. Wright presumably wasn’t taking surveys, but he had his evidence.
“I was at the dry cleaners. I was starting to back out … A guy hit my window. I thought I hit somebody,” Wright said. He rolled down his window. “Coach, Coach …”
Wright was ready for a good luck message. “He goes, ‘Tell Phil I said hello.’ "
Villanova’s head coach and Michigan’s associate head coach didn’t see each other Wednesday. Michigan had the early practice and Martelli walked out to the bus at 11:36 a.m. local time. Eleven minutes later, Wright walked in through security. They purposefully haven’t texted, both said.
It’s easy to wonder, hey, does Martelli give Michigan any little edge on Villanova knowledge? Yes, he has some knowledge. I was at a St. Joe’s practice the day before a Villanova game and Martelli was very detailed that day talking about what ‘Nova was going to do the next day. Then Villanova went out the next day and did it.
“To be honest with you, it’s not a state secret – this isn’t my scout,” Martelli said. “Because what I felt … I have this knowledge, and I have files. But I was afraid that being so close, I would miss something. But we’re all contributing to it. It’s extraordinary offense, it’s shot fakes, it’s all the stuff that everybody knows that they’ve done. But if you don’t stay down on the shot fake, you can throw it all out. It doesn’t matter.”
Michigan knows what to expect, Martelli’s presence or not.
“I don’t think Jay Wright and this extraordinary program that he’s built is practicing a 1-3-1 zone to screw up me,” Martelli said.
Their jobs are different this week. Head coach Juwan Howard gathered the Wolverines around before practice and started talking about ball screen coverage and other matters from the scouting report. A full-court layup and passing drill began, Martelli yelling out what it was, then Martelli was in the middle of it, catching passes and sending them ahead.
“He definitely knows everything about us,” Wright said. “We’ve competed against each other so many times. They’ve always had good game plans. I’m sure, what’s great about having a guy like Phil as an assistant – he knows that an assistant’s suggestions are important, but [the head coach has] got to make the final decision. Sometimes, when you haven’t been a head coach, you don’t know that as an assistant and it can be troublesome to the head coach.”
The history goes beyond the games. Martelli was kind of a roastmaster at Coaches vs. Cancer events. One bit of schtick got a laugh one year, Martelli saying something like, “This man was so cordial to me …”
Then he turned to Wright.
“That means nice.”
“The Hall of Fame, that’s where he’s coaching,” Martelli said of that kind of thing. “But the human being – Jay never took that in any way other than Phil being Phil.”
The Big 5 banquet is held every year in April. Maybe to get trophies engraved in time, awards voting would take place after the regular season. That made for a humorous 2016 banquet moment. Maybe that voting could have been a coin toss after the regular season. That was the last St. Joe’s NCAA Tournament appearance, a second-round near-miss against Oregon in Spokane. Of course, Villanova was good enough in the regular season to earn a No. 2 NCAA seed, and good enough to never lose again.
Big 5 coach of the year? Phil Martelli.
In real time, Martelli recognized the absurdity of it, was ready with a post-it note to stick on the trophy, wrote Jay Wright on the post-it, tried to give it to Jay, who refused to take it.
“It’s in my den,” Martelli said of the trophy. No post-it note? “There was for a long time. But I’m sure [his wife] Judy took it off.”
The interesting thing about thinking about that award – right at the time those voters filled out those ballots, Wright had been to one Final Four seven years earlier, but his career wasn’t automatically destined to be headed for the Hall of Fame.
Since 2016, so much has changed. Only one .500 season for the Hawks. Two NCAA titles for the Wildcats. Martelli out, moving on to this current gig in Ann Arbor. Wright is, in fact, in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, inducted this year.
“He was a ninth-grader at a basketball camp in the Poconos,” Martelli said of when he first met Wright. “I was his camp counselor.”
How would Martelli describe the Holy War to somebody in Michigan?
“Everybody out there has played in their backyard,” Martelli said. “You’ve played wiffle ball, football, tackle in the street. In Philadelphia, it would be wire ball or step ball or whatever it would be. You always played against your brother. Now it might not be your biological brother. But that person you were with … all you wanted to do was win. You didn’t want to just play. You wanted to win.”
Martelli said he was actually asked coming into the arena by someone: hey, did you ever play against Villanova?
“You don’t understand, it was the biggest game.”
When the bracket came out, Martelli focused on Michigan’s immediate first game. Then he saw the next possible game. It maybe took another day, he said, to see what could go down in the Sweet 16.
“Oh, my God,” Martelli said. “I’m looking at it like, Villanova, that’s funny. That’s going to be entertaining.”
Although he didn’t text Wright, “I was tempted,” Martelli said. “In another lifetime, where I could be kind of more irreverent …”
And he was the head coach.
“I would have hit him with, ‘Suits for this, not sweats.”
Event description: While Villanova heads to San Antonio for the tournament’s South Regional, the East Regional is coming to Philly and The Inquirer will be in both locations every step of the way. Join college hoops experts Mike Jensen and Mike Sielski as they offer an insider’s look at Villanova’s tournament run and break down the rest of the field during a special edition of Gameday Central. Tune in Friday, March 25 at 2:15 PM as Jensen and Sielski chat with Inquirer columnist David Murphy on Inquirer LIVE.