HIS TEAM HAS been to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in three of the last four seasons and Jay Wright insists he would be fine stopping there - year after year after year.

No punching walls for him. No pulling out his well-combed coif. No riding his 20-5 team mercilessly this season to try and push them through some perceived wall.

"I don't need to win a national championship," he was saying amid a recruiting trip yesterday. "Honestly, as long as these guys are graduating and I continue to get the enjoyment I do from the relationship with these guys, I would be fine . . . It wouldn't bother me one bit.

"Now our fans . . . They would go crazy. And I know I would have to deal with that."

Yeah, fans can ruin even the best setup in the world, which is how Wright, 47, views his eight seasons on the Main Line and how he explains his continued presence there. Usually it's not a good thing if the goal of a team's fans exceeds that of its coach. But if you are a Villanova fan, it's the biggest reason Wright hasn't winked back when his name has surfaced as a candidate for more prominent college and pro jobs, the biggest reason too for the Wildcats' sustained success under him.

Jay said yesterday that he likes the school, likes his bosses, likes 'Nova's dual existence as both a big-time Big East school and yet a smaller satellite in a city that obsesses about its pro sports teams. You've heard all this before, but when he first uttered the words, it sounded similar to the spiel of many coaches before they're forced to accept a better gig. Wright will even tell you that he owned many of the same feelings in his years at Hofstra, loved New York, loved living on Long Island . . .

Well, the guy is just full of love.

But he is from here. His wife is from here. He said he gets what living here is all about, and sells it well because of that. There was a time, not too long ago, when Steve Lappas' struggles here generated a debate about whether it was even reasonable to expect Villanova to compete any longer with the big programs.

There's no debate anymore.

Wright has a great chance to repeat or surpass last season's surprising success. Villanova has been ranked in the top 20 for most of the season and barring a collapse, should be a high seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament, despite that ugly loss to West Virginia. He had already signed three of the nation's top-60 recruits, before he hit the trails again yesterday.

What changed? Really, just the coach. Wright has farmed the Northeast corridor relentlessly, selling the school, the program, the bigness of belonging to the Big East. But really, it's the coach.

"You know what's interesting about recruiting now?" he said. "When I was with coach [Rollie] Massimino as his assistant in the late '80s and you walked into someone's house, they wanted to hear they had a chance to win a national championship. Now when you walk into someone's house they want to hear, 'You have a chance to be a pro.' "

"Not that I like that," he said. "But the guys have to see that. They appreciate everything else about Villanova. But they have to know they have the chance at the NBA. And that has probably made the biggest difference in recruiting."

It's one reason he lost Gerald Henderson to Duke. Wright can now point to Randy Foye and Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry as NBA players, but he couldn't then. Next year or the one after, he hopes Dante Cunningham will get picked high and dent the rap that 'Nova is a guards-only club. Of the three touted signees, Philadelphia's Maalik Wayns is a point guard, Baltimore's Isaiah Armwood is a swingman and Africa's Mouphtaou Yarou is a 6-10 big man.

You can go to Villanova, get your degree, be a pro. You can be on television all the time without the disproportionate attention that comes with playing in college-only towns like Lexington and Gainesville. "To me, it's perfect," Wright said. "We get plenty of attention. But you're not under the scrutiny every day. Like, 'Why didn't I play Dante Cunningham with two fouls in the West Virginia game in the first half?' Which I probably should have. But it didn't become a 2-day issue."

Wright said yesterday he hopes to finish his coaching career here. He said so reluctantly, "Because I never want to look like a hypocrite." Things can change, he said - a new AD, a new president. "But it would never be for a better job."

He came to Radnor because he thought 'Nova could still compete on the big stage. Now, he said, winning a national championship there "is a possible dream." But he also knows that he is more likely to be headed home by the end of that second weekend, year after year after year. That may not be what 'Cats fans want to hear from their coach, but it's all they're going to get.

"Our fans need a national championship," he said. "And I would love to do it for them. But for me, personally, I love where we are right now. I love what we're doing."

And well - isn't love all you

really need? *

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