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Villanova coach Jay Wright continues to focus on his players’ mental health and safety

Wright said every decision he makes has to do with the players' mental health. He said they could opt out for a time if they needed a break, or if they wanted to go home for the holidays.

Villanova forward Cole Swider drives around a screen set by teammate Collin Gillespie against Texas forward Brock Cunningham .
Villanova forward Cole Swider drives around a screen set by teammate Collin Gillespie against Texas forward Brock Cunningham .Read moreMichael Thomas / AP

Villanova coach Jay Wright likes the way his players have handled practicing and playing games in a pandemic while his focus remains on their mental health and their safety.

He said that was his concern during the four-game, eight-day trip to Mohegan Sun’s “Bubbleville,” and remains that way every day during a season that continues Friday night with the ninth-ranked Wildcats’ Big East opener at Georgetown.

“If they feel it’s best for them mentally to play, we’re going to play,” Wright said Thursday during a Zoom call with the media. “If they feel they want to go home for Christmas, they’re going home for Christmas. We don’t normally run our program this way, but based on this year with a pandemic, every decision we make is based on their mental health and their safety.

“If somebody feels like they’re going to slip and needs to get out of the [team] bubble, we tell them, ‘Opt out, do it, we’re in full support. When you want to come back, we’ll quarantine you.’”

The players are happy that there is a basketball season, though they miss their families.

“We kind of do the same thing every day,” senior guard Collin Gillespie said. “We come to the gym, we’re working out. We just finished up school, so we have a lot more free time on our hands after practice. But yeah, I’m good, the team is good, just taking it one day at a time.

“It’s tough being away from our families and all the people that we love, but we’ve got to sacrifice to play and that’s what our guys want to do.”

Junior Cole Swider, who has emerged as the team’s sixth man in the early going, said he was doing well.

“We were so uncertain with the season this fall and it’s been amazing to be able to play with my teammates,” he said. “I don’t really need a lot. Playing basketball is what I want to do. I think my teammates are kind of in the same mental space. It’s been hard not seeing our families, but besides that, it’s been good.”

While the season has been anything but typical, the Wildcats (4-1) will be playing a familiar opponent in the Hoyas (2-2), who will host the game at McDonough Arena, their campus facility.

“This Georgetown rivalry really does give us a feeling of some normalcy,” Wright said. “What I ask our players, that’s why they’re willing to sacrifice everything. They’re sacrificing time with their families, time with their girlfriends, their friends, because they love the normalcy of those games and practice.”

The Wildcats had earlier games postponed against St. Joseph’s and Temple. After Friday night, their next three opponents — DePaul, Butler, and Virginia — all currently have COVID-19 issues, with the scheduled Monday game against the Blue Demons at Finneran Pavilion already postponed.

On Tuesday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called on college basketball to assess playing during the pandemic and the effect it has on the mental health and safety of players, coaches, and staff. Wright said he’s been part of a National Association of Basketball Coaches committee, which includes Krzyzewski, Kentucky’s John Calipari, and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, that has discussed the issue.

“What I’ve learned is, we have our ideas and then the NCAA committees just do what they’re going to do,” Wright said. “So what I’ve learned personally is, we have no control of that. What we’re trying to do at Villanova is work and make our decisions based on our players’ mental health and our players’ safety.”