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Jay Wright’s Journey To 500 Wins: Returning To Villanova

Becoming just the 8th Head Coach in school history, Jay Wright would return to the place where he honed his coaching and recruiting skills.

Pittsburgh Panthers v Villanova Wildcats Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Four Hundred and Ninety Six. That’s how many wins Villanova’s head coach Jay Wright has amassed in his now 23rd season as a Division I men’s college basketball coach. That means he’s just four wins away from his 500th victory, a major milestone that only 62 other coaches have achieved. And Wright isn’t just approaching the mark, he’s about to burst through it Kool-Aid Man style.

So with each win that Jay picks until he hits the big five-oh-oh (likely early next month), we’re going to take a look back at some of the key victories that got him to this point. Last week we looked at how Coach Wright got his start at Hofstra University. This week starts the next and biggest chapter of his career: Villanova University.

Wright was one of the hottest coaches out there in 2001. He had led Hofstra to two consecutive AEC regular season titles, conference tournament championships, and NCAA appearances. He was ready to step up to the next level, but Villanova was not the immediate choice. Rutgers was the front runner and appeared to have a deal in place for the 39 year old coach before Steve Lappas stepped down at Nova to take the opening at UMass. Just like that, Rutgers was out of the picture and Wright was returning to the place he had called home for five years under Rollie Massimino. Now as just the school’s 8th head coach, he was charged with taking a middle of the road program back to the Championship status it once held.

Win #123: First Victory As Villanova’s Head Coach

Career Game: 208 | Date: Nov. 21, 2001 | Opponent: Grambling | Score: 82-68

While no one would consider Jay’s first squad on the Main Line a group of world-beaters, he did have some very talented players. Ricky Wright and Gary Buchanan had 24 and 20 points respectively in the young coach’s debut. Jay, while normally cool and collected, can get fired up on the court. After his first game, he explained to reporters, “I always have fun. Even if I look like I’m upset. There is nothing like the game and being here.” A little over 15 years later, those words still ring true.

Win #126: First Big5 Victory

Career Game: 213 | Date: Dec. 8, 2001 | Opponent: Temple | Score: 70-66

Wright lost his first two Big5 games to La Salle and Penn by one possession, each in overtime. It was a fitting welcome to being a head coach in Philadelphia. But when facing John Chaney’s Temple Owls at the Palestra, Wright’s team put together one of the best thrillers in the schools’ long rivalry. Tied at 66-66, Derrick Snowden would score the final 4 points of the game to give his coach his first ever Big 5 win and his first victory at the Palestra. Knowing how much Coach Wright honors and takes pride in Philadelphia basketball history, this may be one of his personal favorite wins in his career.

Win #130: First Big East Victory

Career Game: 217 | Date: Jan. 2, 2002 | Opponent: Providence | Score: 76-57

The Wildcats were 7-2 and on a roll as they entered Big East play. Their new head coach had them fired up and running on all cylinders. So when Providence came to town for the team’s first conference game, they were ready to play Villanova basketball. Ricky Wright, one of the nation’s most accurate shooters that season, led the team with 18 points. Villanova went on a 21-3 run to open the second half as they easily won Wright his first Big East game.

While most people would be focused on the 21 part of that run, Wright was more interested in the 3. “We don’t count on guys scoring to win,” he said after the game. “We want to be able to stop people, rebound, and be able to win games when our guys don’t score... That is the kind of program we want to be.” And that’s exactly the kind of program he’s built at Villanova.

Win #135: First Victory Over A Ranked Team

Career Game: 228 | Date: Feb. 9, 2002 | Opponent: #15 UCLA | Score: 58-57

Both Villanova and Wright were looking for revenge against Steve Lavin’s UCLA Bruins when they came to the Pavilion to close out the Wildcats non-conference schedule. Nova had been badly beaten in their first half of a home-and-home the previous season, while Wright’s Hofstra team had fallen to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Having gone just 4-6 in the first half of Big East play, the Cats were looking for a signature win.

It was a close, back and forth game that would come down to the final minutes. Brooks Sales would hit two free throws to give the Cats a one point lead, and a strong defensive stop on the other end gave Nova the victory as the fans stormed the court. It was Wright’s first win over a ranked team, and just like last year’s championship, he remained calm amidst the celebration. While it’s a fun throwback video to watch below, I’ll quote the announcer from the 8:20 mark, “Jay Wright, ice water! This first year coach at Villanova, and we’re going to repeat what we said earlier, Jay Wright is on the way to building a terrific program here at Villanova.”

Win #139: First Big East Tournament Victory

Career Game: 235 | Date: Mar. 6th, 2002 | Opponent: Syracuse | Score: 78-64

Villanova closed out the regular season with two wins to earn the 5 seed from the East Division (yes, the Big East used to have divisions). They would face Syracuse, the 4 seed from the West, in what would basically be a home court for the ‘Cuse in Madison Square Garden. But Wright had already beaten Jim Boeheim’s team once that season, and he already knew how to play and win in the Garden from his Hofstra days. The Wildcats easily handled Syracuse before losing the next day to #19 UConn who would go on to win the tournament.

Win #140: First NIT Victory

Career Game: 237 | Date: Mar. 14, 2002 | Opponent: Manhattan | Score: 84-69

This was Wright’s 4th consecutive appearance in a national post-season tournament, but he was 0-3 in his career to this point. The Cats had a first round bye (to be fair, most teams did) and were matched with a Manhattan team who had won 20 games that season. But they were no match for Wright’s defensive minded Cats, who blew this one open for a 25 point victory. Villanova would advance to the Quarterfinals that season before falling to cross town rival Temple in a revenge game for their Big5 loss to the Cats earlier that season. Jay Wright finished his first season as Villanova’s head coach 19-13, with better days on the horizon.

Win #144: First Victory Over A Top 10 Team

Career Game: 243 | Date: Nov. 29, 2002 | Opponent: #9 Michigan State | Score: 81-73

During the Great Alaska Shootout, Villanova found themselves matched up with Tom Izzo’s #9 ranked Michigan State Spartans. Gary Buchanan had 29 points to lead the team, now brimming with young freshman talent in Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser. But like any young team, they weren’t able to extend the hot start and lost in the Championship game to the College of Charleston.

This Nova squad was inconsistent. They went on multiple winning and losing streaks throughout the year, and then came the phone scandal. With multiple players serving suspensions, the team wasn’t able to notch a single post season victory in the BET or NIT. Wright knew he had a talented team, but they still needed discipline.

Win #172: First Big East Tournament Semi-Final

Career Game: 301 | Date: Mar. 11, 2004 | Opponent: #20 Providence | Score: 69-66

It had been an up and down season for the Wildcats. Still dealing with the previous year’s scandal to start the season, the team couldn’t seem to find their identity. Still a very young team, they’d match big wins with equally poor losses. They’d eventually finish the regular season on a five game losing streak and a 14-15 record.

Then on the first night of the Big East Tournament, Randy Foye hit the game winner to beat Seton Hall by one and advance Villanova to the BET Quarter-Final. They would face a Providence team that had already beaten Nova earlier that season, but finally having won a close game seemed to have lit a spark with the team. Jason Fraser had 17 points while Foye and Allan each added 15 a piece. After the game, Jay Wright said, “We came here with two goals. We wanted to win two games so we could play in the NIT at least, and to keep playing. This team likes to play.”

Wright’s team accomplished their goal, and would win their first two NIT games as well. But to date, that would be the coach’s last team to play in the NIT. Because from then on if he was going to be playing post-season basketball, he’d be doing it in the big dance.

Win #184: First Victory Over A Top 5 Team

Career Game: 319 | Date: Jan. 22, 2005 | Opponent: #2 Kansas | Score: 83-62

Undefeated Kansas came into the Wachovia Center (now Wells Fargo) in the middle of a blizzard. But that was nothing compared to the flurry of 3’s they’d face from the Wildcats. It was easily the biggest win for Jay Wright in his four seasons at Nova, and he acknowledged that it was a good sign of things to come. “I know the program's going in the right direction. I know we've got good guys, we've got good guys coming in, it's more for these kids.”

Win #187: First Win As A Ranked Team

Career Game: 323 | Date: Feb. 5, 2005 | Opponent: Providence | Score: 89-81

After beating Kansas and winning their next two conference games, Villanova was ranked 24th in the AP poll, and would remain ranked for the rest of the season. For Coach Wright, this was the first time as a head coach that his team was nationally ranked. For Villanova, it was the first time the school had been ranked since the 1997 team that featured Alvin Williams and Tim Thomas. From that 04-05 season to today, Wright has had an AP ranked team in 10 of 13 seasons, and has the third longest active streak at 66 consecutive weeks in the Top 25 behind only Kansas and Arizona. It’s one of the Top 45 streaks of all-time.

Win #197: First NCAA Tournament Win

Career Game: 335 | Date: Mar. 18, 2005 | Opponent: New Mexico | Score: 55-47

After closing out the regular season on a 7 game winning streak including victories over #3Boston College and #17Pitt, Villanova earned the 5 seed in the East Region. This was the school’s first NCAA appearance in six years, and the Wildcats used stifling defense to get past a pesky 12 seed in New Mexico. Mike Nardi, now on the sidelines with Coach Wright, led the team with 15 points while Randy Foye added 14.

In their next game, Nova would dominate Florida to give the school its first Sweet 16 berth in 17 years. Unfortunately, they would also lose Curtis Sumpter in the process. Without Sumpter, the Nova team was in a dog fight with the 1 Seed UNC. In the closing seconds of the game, Allan Ray was called for a QUESTIONABLE travel, and the Tar Heels escaped with a one point victory. The only silver lining of the Sumpter injury was that it gave birth to “Guard U” moniker that Jay Wright has become known for at Villanova.

As successful as Wright was in his first few seasons at Nova, his best (and worst) years were yet to come. Stay tuned after Jay’s next victory for part 3 of our 5 part series: The Highs and The Lows.