Bill Raftery has watched dozens and dozens of Villanova basketball games since Jay Wright took over as head coach in 2001, watching the program rise to become one of the nation’s elite and being part of the CBS-TV call on the Wildcats’ national championships in 2016 and 2018.
While the current team doesn’t have the firepower of last season’s champions, who lost their top four scorers to the NBA Draft, this year’s Cats have achieved much – a fifth Big East regular season title in the last six years and a conference tournament crown for the third straight year -- with a roster that includes seven freshmen and sophomores.
And Raftery is impressed.
“I think maybe this is his best coaching job,” said Raftery, the former La Salle player who is in his 37th season with CBS, during a break in last week’s Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
“They’re undersized, they’re just unselfish. They do all the things his championship teams did, just maybe not as deep or as tall, and maybe not as many answers. So it’s really been a tribute to these kids and what they’ve pulled together and done.”
Raftery was one of three former collegiate head coaches-turned-television analysts interviewed by The Inquirer, along with Steve Lappas (Villanova, CBS and CBS Sports Network) and Steve Lavin (UCLA, St. John’s, Fox and Fox Sports 1).
The Wildcats, who carry a 25-9 record and a No. 6 seed in the South Region into their opening NCAA Tournament game Thursday night against Saint Mary’s in Hartford, Conn., have gone through highs and lows this season with a team anchored by durable senior captains Phil Booth and Eric Paschall that also starts two sophomores and a freshman..
There was a 2-2 start that saw a crushing 27-point loss to Michigan in the 2018 national title rematch on the official opening night of the renovated Finneran Pavilion. There was an 11-game winning streak that included a 10-0 start in Big East competition. That was followed by a 3-5 mark that concluded the regular season, including three straight losses, all on the road, and left the Cats with plenty of questions heading into Madison Square Garden.
Those questions were answered last week, ending with yet another trophy presentation.
“Jay’s done as good a coaching job as ever with this group,” said Lappas, who also coached at Manhattan and Massachusetts and has spent the last 13 years in television. “What really hurt in this situation was that you don’t count on losing (Donte) DiVincenzo, you don’t count on losing (Omari) Spellman. Even if only one stays, having three weapons instead of two is a huge difference.
“That’s kind of the way the cards fell. Considering the fact that they have two weapons when they had six last year, you’ve got to give Booth and Paschall an unbelievable amount of credit. Last year, three guys could have taken the night off – I’m not saying that they did – but they could have still won because you had three other guys. These guys can’t take a play off and that can wear on you physically and mentally.”
Lavin coached against Wright in his four seasons at St. John’s before joining Fox Sports in 2015
“Any coach ideally wants to have the personnel that allows you to play with a margin for error,” he said, “where you can have an off-night in one aspect of play and still be able to get wins because of the firepower. But in some respects, it’s the teams that don’t have the firepower that, as a coach, you’re able to get closer to their full potential and surprise people, that can be the most rewarding.”
Wright said near the end of the regular season that he felt he may have tinkered with the rotation a little too long, particularly during the losing streak. Lappas, who preceded Wright on the 'Nova bench, said it’s “tempting” to keep playing freshmen in the hopes they get better, but it doesn’t always work.
“It’s a hard situation to be in when you have guys that you need because you really are trying not to be in tinker mode,” he said. “So that becomes a very difficult thing to balance. And the fact that they won 11 in a row at one point is incredible.”
The sophomores have come on. Lavin said it’s Wright’s flexibility, which he calls “one of his real strengths,” that allows players to grow, with forward Jermaine Samuels a case in point.
“The flexibility plays a part in his thinking,” Lavin said. “He allows for players over the course of the year to grow their role and doesn’t pigeonhole them. Samuels is an example. All of a sudden, he becomes a three-point marksman in some big games. His release is a little awkward, but it’s going through.”
Samuels, who sank 22 three-point baskets and shot 32.8 percent from deep in 31 regular-season games, went 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) in the three-game Big East Tournament.
All three analysts will be working the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament – Raftery in Columbia, S.C., Lappas in Salt Lake City and Lavin in Tulsa, Okla. Being part of the main crew with Jim Nantz and Grant Hill, Raftery will be part of the team broadcasting the Final Four for the fifth straight year.
He doesn’t know if he’ll see Villanova for a third time in four years, even though he said the Wildcats continue to have an “X” on their backs as defending champions.
“I think what happens when you win a couple, they expect you to be knocking at the door every year,” Raftery said. “I can remember Dean Smith when we were young in coaching. People would say, ‘Well, he hasn’t won any championships. He’s not that good a coach.’ But to win six games with teams ready for you is very hard. What Jay’s done has been a great accomplishment.”