The summer of 2021 is one that Jay Wright always will remember — a role as an assistant coach helping lead Team USA’s gold medal-winning performance at the Tokyo Olympics, and enshrinement with the legends of the game into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
But what it comes down to for Wright is: He’s a basketball coach. He loves to lead his players through daily practice and watch them get better. And with his Villanova Wildcats having done just that Tuesday formally for the first time this preseason, he is back in his comfort zone.
“The experience this summer was an incredible professional experience, a lifetime experience, something that will impact me for the rest of my life,” Wright, who is entering his 21st season as the Cats’ head coach, said in a Zoom call after the morning practice. “The Hall of Fame is a great honor, a little uncomfortable.
“But getting back to practice (Tuesday), starting the season, knowing that we’re going to practice (Wednesday) and now we’re going to get in that rhythm, I think all of us in basketball, when we get back in that rhythm of the season, we’re real comfortable, we’re real happy, and we’re in our happy place. That’s what we love to do.”
Wright left the Wildcats July 2 to join Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich and his assistants to continue preparations for the Olympics, and he did not return until mid-August. He was pleased to see how much his Villnaova players progressed with his assistant coaches in charge and the leadership of his upperclassmen.
“When I left, I saw where the team was,” he said. “Then when we started working out in August, I saw where they were and I could see a big difference, and obviously I was not a part of it. So you could see the job that the upperclassmen did and the coaches did in teaching our concepts.”
The two veterans of the team are guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels, both of whom took a fifth year as allowed last season by the NCAA because of the pandemic. Gillespie decided to come back after suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in early March and Samuels decided to join him.
Gillespie was cleared to play last month and said his knee is 100%. He and Samuels have had an active role in helping the team’s younger players, particularly its four freshmen, learn the system.
“There were some days last summer where coaches weren’t allowed to be around because of restrictions and stuff like that, so we kind of had to run practices on our own,” Gillespie said, referring to COVID restrictions in 2020. “But it just takes another step this year, like Coach was saying about relying more on us to teach the young guys and show them and set the example.”
Samuels underwent offseason surgery for a broken right pinkie finger that hampered him throughout last season. He called his return to the Wildcats “a blessing.”
“We’re really lucky to be in the position that we’re in and keeping the program going,” he said. “The young guys get it. We have guys that have been here three years, four years. Those guys know what it is. So the competitiveness that we have on the court and the camaraderie that we have off the court, it’s special. I’m really grateful to be a part of it.”
Wright said that junior guard Bryan Antoine, who has been sidelined for a significant part of his first two seasons because of shoulder issues, suffered an injury to the patella tendon in his knee and will be out for an undetermined length of time, but will not need surgery. He also said freshman center Nnanna Njoku continues to be in concussion protocol after missing a few days.
Wright said a decision still must be made on veteran center Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who sat out the entire 2020-21 season after undergoing two surgeries to repair a tibial stress fracture in his left leg. He said the athletic department’s compliance officer is checking with the NCAA to determine whether Cosby-Roundtree could carry over his COVID year to the 2022-23 season.
“We’re trying to figure out ... if he couldn’t go, is it going to be at the point where, if he missed the whole season, he would get that year back with the COVID year? That’s all part of the process,” Wright said.