Jay Wright feels that Big 5 games are difficult for a lot of reasons, such as the rivalries among all the city schools and how familiar each team is with its opponent.
It goes deeper for Wright, however. Six days after playing a La Salle team coached by a former Villanova assistant, he goes against another one on Saturday when he and his 23rd-ranked Wildcats (6-2, 2-0 Big 5) visit Hagan Arena to play St. Joseph’s (2-7, 0-0).
Hawks coach Billy Lange served two terms on Wright’s staff, from 2001 through 2004, and 2011 through 2013. He went from the Main Line to the 76ers, where he was an assistant for six seasons before taking the St. Joe’s job last March.
This is Villanova’s third City Series game of the week. The first came Sunday when La Salle head coach Ashley Howard, who coached with Wright for five seasons and helped win two national championships, brought his team to Finneran Pavilion and put up a good fight in an 83-72 defeat.
The last time Wright and Lange were opposing head coaches, upset-minded Navy knocked down 14 3-point baskets and made the Pavilion crowd nervous before the Wildcats came away with a 78-68 victory in December 2008. Lange spent seven seasons (2004-11) as Navy’s head coach.
“They made a ton of threes and scared the hell out of us,” Wright recalled Friday.
“He knows everything we do obviously. He’s been a big part of everything we do. So it’s always tough when you’re playing your assistants. We were playing Ashley and we hear Ashley yelling things and I don’t know if it’s our team or he’s yelling the same words that we say.
“I think it is tough playing assistants and it’s something that you know is going to be difficult, and when it’s over you’re happy.”
As for Lange, he is trying to make this game about the Hawks against the Wildcats, not one coach going up against his former boss. He wants to lead his team out of a six-game losing streak in his first Big 5 game as a head coach.
“In the moment, my focus is on being head coach at St. Joseph’s,” he said. “Shaking his hand and doing that will be a reminder that this is a mentor, this is a great friend, and we have an opportunity to compete. I don’t think about the opportunity to coach against Jay as much as I want to help my team try to win a game.”
Having said that, Lange is thankful that Wright has played “such a major part” in his career going back to his days as an assistant coach at Bishop Eustace, his first college head coaching job at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and his time at Villanova.
“I would not be at this point without Jay Wright, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “As I get ready for this game, that’s the stuff I’m thinking about as it relates to Jay, just how grateful and humbled I am by his confidence and belief in me.”