Jay Wright has his own model for an American idol, not some kid with pitch problems and two-toned hair, but a former captain in the United States Army who has achieved just about everything a college basketball coach can achieve.
The Villanova coach will be on the same sideline Thursday night at the NCAA tournament in Boston matching wits with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski for the first time in his career and, frankly, he's pretty excited about being able to do it.
"It's an honor to coach against him, it really is," Wright said yesterday before the Wildcats practiced at the Pavilion. "He's one of the all-time greats. He's a guy who really respects our profession. He's very, very respectful of other coaches. As great as he is, he treats all the younger coaches - treats everybody - with respect."
Wright's Wildcats (28-7), seeded third in the East Regional, take on the second-seeded Blue Devils (30-6), who are seeking their fourth national championship under Krzyzewski.
Wright has a connection with Krzyzewski, mostly through their work with USA Basketball. Duke's coach had worked with a number of national teams from 1979 through 1992 but returned in 2006 as head coach of the U.S. senior national team, a.k.a. the Redeem Team, which won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"My relationship would have to be teacher-pupil type," said Wright, whose involvement with USA Basketball began in 2000. "When I coach USA Basketball teams, he always goes out of his way to thank me. It's amazing. He always thanks you for doing it for USA Basketball. He talks to you about the team, talks to you about his guys. I've had his players on the team. He's just a very humble guy."
Wright said he enjoyed watching the Olympic team practice last year, when he took notes and listened to what Krzyzewski told his team.
"Every time you think, wow, this guy really can't do anything more . . ." Wright said. "The way he handled those guys was incredible. So he's an idol to a lot of us. He is to me."
When Duke defeated Texas, 74-69, Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16, it marked the 10th time in his 29 seasons as coach that Krzyzewski had led his team to 30 wins in a season. For comparison's sake, the Wildcats' 28 victories are tied for most in a season in the university's history.
At a news conference yesterday in Durham, N.C., Krzyzewski said he liked Villanova's depth and that "they're a hard team to defend."
"They like to drive and they give them the ability to make plays," he said. "Jay does that real well. They come off the bench with more offensive firepower than we do. [Corey] Fisher and [Corey] Stokes have really been scoring the ball well."
Krzyzewski, 62, who won his 500th career game the last time Duke played Villanova in November 2000, has compiled a record of 760-214 with the Blue Devils, including a record 71 wins in the NCAA tournament. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001 in the same class with former Temple coach John Chaney.
While this year marks Duke's first trip to the Sweet 16 in three seasons, the Blue Devils did make nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances from 1998 through 2006 and last won it all in 2001.
For the Villanova players, they heard of Duke at an early age, and Krzyzewski was the only coach they saw on the sidelines all those years.
"Of course I wanted to play for Duke, wanted to play for North Carolina growing up," senior forward Dante Cunningham said. "Those were the teams you always, always saw on TV. I wanted to be on TV. That was somewhere you definitely wanted to be."
For all the praise and admiration voiced yesterday by Villanova players and coaches of the Duke tradition, they have their own tradition to embellish - getting the Wildcats into the Elite Eight, with a chance to go further.
"We respect everyone but we fear no one," Cunningham said. "We never get star-struck by any team name or anything like that. They put their shoes on the same way we put our shoes on."
As for Wright, who regularly in the Big East goes against Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and a potential future member in Louisville's Rick Pitino, he can prepare and focus on the game and still enjoy the sideline matchup.
"I think my experience has taught me that, once the game starts, you concentrate on the players," Wright said. "But leading up to it, it's cool coaching against Mike Krzyzewski."