Keith Morris - St. Joseph's Prep basketball assistant coach, former La Salle Explorers player, son of Speedy - pleads guilty. When Villanova played its early-round NCAA games at the Wachovia Center, Morris was spotted wearing a Villanova hat.

What would it have taken for Morris to wear such a hat 20 years ago?

"An act of God," Morris said yesterday.

Times change. Morris helped coach 'Nova starter Reggie Redding at St. Joe's Prep, and, "as a 17-year-old at my father's La Salle basketball camp, Jay Wright was my counselor," Morris said. "He was an assistant coach at the University of Rochester. I learned the right jab step from him."

A generation of Philly basketball insiders, many of whom blamed Villanova for the breakup of the Big Five, saw 'Nova as an island on the Main Line, not fully participating in the local basketball scene. Now, many of these same people are converts, openly rooting for the Wildcats in the Final Four.

And this détente isn't new because of this run. Ties now extend all over the city hoops landscape. Two 'Nova starters grew up in North Philly. Redding played for Morris, one of the city's basketball icons. Wildcats associate head coach Pat Chambers played high school and college ball for two more local legends, Dan Dougherty at Episcopal and Herb Magee at Philadelphia Textile.

In the old days, when Villanova barely had any players from Philadelphia under Rollie Massimino, that was reason enough to side against 'Nova. But Steve Lappas brought in Philly prep stars Jason Lawson and Alvin Williams, and Wright has upped the ante, making recruiting the city's bluest-chippers a priority. A trophy case at the Hank Gathers recreation center at 25th and Diamond includes a basketball signed by Kyle Lowry and his former Villanova teammates.

Even a lot of St. Joe's fans, veterans of "Holy War" battles between the Hawks and Wildcats, say Wright has made it difficult to keep up the fight. Some pull it off, proudly (or sheepishly) admitting to an irrational hatred. But other than maybe being jealous of his wardrobe, Wright doesn't give them much ammunition, they say.

"Really good friends have said, 'How can you root for Villanova? Aren't you a Hawk?' " said Tess Boyle, widow of former St. Joe's coach Jim Boyle. "I'll always be a Hawk. But Jay Wright and my husband had a very special relationship."

Die-hard Holy Warriors may not want to hear this: "They used to meet at the diner out at Villanova and do X's and O's," Tess Boyle said of her husband and Wright.

The bottom line: The men saw through the facade of the rivalry. When Boyle, known universally as Bo, was fighting cancer, Wright showed up at his door with a basketball. On it, these words: "Bo is bigger than the Holy War."

"It just lit my husband up," Tess Boyle said, adding that Chambers also showed up at their door one time to see her ailing husband, bringing along a bag of hoagies. "Those guys just get it," she said.

Her son-in-law, Brian Daly, coach at Monsignor Bonner High School, was a Hawks player himself but also was spotted wearing a "Nova Nation" shirt this past weekend. (His brother-in-law, Penncrest High coach Mike Doyle, gave him up.) That may sound blasphemous, a true Hawk wearing such a thing, but Chambers is a close friend.

In fact, after 'Nova knocked off Pitt in the Elite Eight, Daly was looking for a room at the Final Four. He was supposed to stay with Chambers, who is suddenly a little busy.

Magee acknowledges that having a former player on 'Nova's staff heightens his own interest, but he said of the local thaw: "It's strictly Jay. There's nothing phony about the guy."

Magee, now the third all-time winningest NCAA men's basketball coach, can take pride in the fact that he was ahead of the curve on the Wright bandwagon.

"We actually tried to recruit him out of high school," the Philadelphia University coach said.

Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or