WHEN JAY WRIGHT called to tell him that the Villanova players would be wearing "JK" patches on their uniforms and dedicating the season to Jack Kraft, Fran O'Hanlon thought: "That's as classy a move as you can make, really cool.''
Every summer, Wright brings a lot of the former players back to campus. Few are more beloved than O'Hanlon, Villanova class of 1970 who, on Feb. 24 of that year, dealt 16 assists against Toledo in a 107-82 win. His coach that day and every day at Villanova was Kraft, who died last year. When O'Hanlon first saw Villanova play this season with the patches, he just felt "it was so touching."
Thursday night in Pittsburgh, O'Hanlon will see those uniforms up close. The Lafayette coach won't have to watch too many Villanova tapes to get ready.
"I'm a fan of theirs,'' he said. "I've seen a lot of their games.''
When O'Hanlon was there, Villanova had one of America's best basketball programs. It still does. And this team, ranked No. 2, has the best record in program history, 32-2.
"I really enjoy watching them play,'' O'Hanlon said. "It was very enjoyable to watch them until I saw we had to play them.''
Lafayette got lucky by being unlucky this season. The Leopards had a few injuries in midseason that probably cost them a few games. Until Holy Cross won at Boston University in the last regular-season game, it appeared Lafayette was going to open on the road in the Patriot League Tournament against BU as the 5 seed.
Instead, the Leopards got a home game against BU, scored 89 points on just 57 possessions and won easily. Then, they scored 80 points on 62 possessions at No. 1 Bucknell to win again and reach the championship game. They had nine turnovers in the two games.
"We get the 4 seed,'' O'Hanlon said. "Bucknell's students are out so they don't have a full house as they usually do. We win that game. The cards came up.''
Then, with only No. 6 American left, they got another home game and held off the Eagles to win the championship while shooting a championship-game record 65 percent.
The Leopards made 257 threes this season. Their offense is choreographed by a conductor with few equals in the college game. They take great shots and make nearly 49 percent of them. In a sport where shooting is a lost art, they can still shoot at Lafayette.
O'Hanlon has a solid senior class and a terrific point guard in Germantown Academy sophomore Nick Lindner. His team is very skilled.
Villanova will get lost a few times, leave a few shooters open. The problem is openings will be harder to find than in the Patriot and Villanova will have the ball too.
"They won a lot of games this year so nobody's really figured them out,'' O'Hanlon said. "And I'm not John Wooden. More than anything else, I just want our guys to compete.''
O'Hanlon knows the game. He is nothing if not realistic.
"This week is all good,'' he said.
He is finishing his 20th season at Lafayette. He might have liked to get a few offers through the years, but it never quite worked out. Now, he is a probable Lafayette lifer, the Herb Magee of Easton.
"The timing or the fit was never right,'' O'Hanlon said. "It just ended up with me staying and it got to a point where all right, 'I'm here.' Now if the San Antonio Spurs ask me to take over, I'll think about it. I don't know if anybody is going to ask me right now. I'm not Larry Brown.''
So he will do what he has been doing for years - teach basketball. The O'Hanlon classroom is a laboratory experiment gone very right. Remember those Penn teams starring Jerome Allen, Matt Maloney, Barry Pierce, et al? That was O'Hanlon right by Fran Dunphy's side. And Dunphy has always credited O'Hanlon with bringing so many of those offensive concepts from the practice court to the games.
O'Hanlon left Penn to take the head job at Lafayette. And if he never leaves, he will be fine with that.
He sees Villanova and admires what the Wildcats have done and are doing. But he also knows there is some pressure after recent early-round exits.
"At our level, it's all about the season and trying to get to this point,'' O'Hanlon said. "For people at that level, they don't let them enjoy the season. It's all about how far we're going to go in the [tournament]. That's the shame of it. It's not easy winning 32 games with everybody coming at you. That's an awesome accomplishment.''
O'Hanlon does not have to deal with that kind of scrutiny. His team certainly wants to win, but can actually play for the sheer joy of the game.
"Nobody's picking us in their office pool for the Final Four,'' he said.
Lafayette is, in fact, a 23-point underdog against its coach's alma mater. But the coach will be enjoying the moment, seeing his team, his school's team and the tribute to his coach worn with pride by the next generation of Villanova players.