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Jay Wright’s Journey To 500 Wins: The Highs, The Lows, The Championship

Wright’s early success in the late 2000’s were followed by a string of disappointing seasons. But as always, Jay learned from past mistakes. The result has been the greatest era of Villanova Basketball ever.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Champion-Villanova White House Visit Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Four Hundred and Ninety Seven. 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 three 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.

After his last two victories, we covered his early years at Hofstra and his return to Villanova. Today we take a look at the last decade of Wright’s head coaching career, a roller coaster ride to be sure. After the 2005 season that was curtailed with the Curtis Sumpter injury in the NCAA Tournament, he re-injured the knee in the ‘05-’06 preseason, leaving Wright in a difficult position. But in Jay’s own words, “That’s what programs do. We respond to these situations.”

The Highs

The response was the birth of the “Guard U” era of Villanova basketball. The team would rely on a four guard system including Randy Foye, Ray Allen, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry. This backcourt heavy team with an emphasis on playing relentless defense and a free-flowing offense would be the staple for Wright’s program, and still is today

Win #199: First Victory As A Top 5 Team

Career Game: 338 | Date: Nov. 18, 2005 | Opponent: Stony Brook | Score: 78-35

Despite the Sumpter injury, Villanova came into the season ranked #5 in the country. They would remain in the Top 5 for all but two weeks that season, only falling as low as 8th. Stony Brook was no match for Wright’s four guard lineup, but few in the country were. Their ability to defend larger opponents, rebound, and force turnovers would lead them to have KenPom’s 11th best defense that season. The Wildcats were for real.

Win #216: First Outright Big 5 Championship

Career Game: 357 | Date: Feb. 7, 2006 | Opponent: St. Joseph’s | Score: 71-58

For a coach that loves the history and spectacle of Philadelphia basketball, Jay Wright couldn’t have asked for a more perfect game. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Big 5, rivals Villanova and St. Joe’s were heading to the Palestra, both 3-0, to determine the outright Big 5 Champion. The Wildcats had split the Big 5 Title with Temple the previous season, but this year it was all or nothing. The game was so hyped in the city that Wright couldn’t even get a parking spot when he showed up.

After being down 12 at halftime, the ‘Cats came storming back on the strength of 17 second half points for Kyle Lowry. They would handily defeat their “Holy War” rivals and give Wright his second consecutive Big 5 Championship. Lowry led all players with 25 points for the game, a fitting end to his Big 5 career for the Philadelphia native. Lowry, along with Foye, would be selected in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft.

Win #218: First Victory Over The #1 Ranked Team

Career Game: 359 | Date: Feb. 13, 2006 | Opponent: #1 UConn | Score: 69-64

Just two games later, the #4 Villanova hosted the #1 team in the country, the UConn Huskies. It was an amazing game that came down to the very end, but Villanova would eventually come out victorious. It’s not often you see fans of the #4 team in the country storm the court, but that’s how big this win was for the school and Coach Wright. The two would face off once more in Connecticut, but this time it would be the Huskies who came out on top.

Win #222: First Big East Regular Season Championship

Career Game: 364 | Date: Mar. 5, 2006 | Opponent: Syracuse | Score: 92-82

Villanova and UConn had been at it like, well, Cats and Dogs for the entire second half of the season. So it was fitting that the two would each finish with a share of the 2006 Big East Regular Season Championship. A ten point win at the Carrier Dome gave Jay Wright his first Big East title, and the 3rd Conference Championship of his career.

Win #226: First NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Victory

Career Game: 369 | Date: Mar. 24, 2006 | Opponent: #7 Boston College | Score: 60-59, OT

The previous Wildcat season had ended with a heartbreaking loss to UNC in the Sweet 16. This year, Jay Wright and his team found themselves in another nail-biter against a team that had turned its back on the Big East. This was BC’s first season as a member of the ACC, and every Big East fan was hoping that Villanova would put an end to their season. The game was so close that it eventually went into overtime. With just a few seconds remaining on the clock, Will Sheridan was able to slip open under the basket for an easy layup. Boston College’s only option was to goal tend, and it sealed the Villanova victory.

Unfortunately the team would lose to eventual national champions Florida in the Elite 8, but this team had proved that Jay Wright was now among the upper tiers of college coaches. Losing his prized recruiting class along with one of his star players in Lowry, Wright would have to rebuild. Through the process he would continue to have success in the regular season and NCAA tournament, and just a few short years later that perseverance would pay off.

Win #300: First Trip To The NCAA Final Four

Career Game: 475 | Date: March 28, 2009 | Opponent: Pitt | Score: 78-76

Fast forward three years and Wright has put together another stellar team. A combination of the sheer scoring power of Scottie Reynolds, the senior leadership of Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson, and the super sophomores in Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. The team won 25 games in the regular season, and earned a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

After a first round victory over American that was closer than it should have been, the Wildcats completely dismantled the #17 UCLA Bruins with a comfortable 20 point victory. In the Sweet 16, they absolutely destroyed #6 Duke by 23, setting up an all Big East Regional Final with Pitt. Despite having lost their first game of the Big East Tournament, Pitt had still earned a 1 seed and a relatively easy path to the Elite 8. Villanova had beaten them by 10 at home in their only other game that season, but this game would be much closer.

It was a back and forth game with both teams trading the lead. With under six seconds remaining, Pitt tied the game at 76-76. Villanova was able to get the ball to their star, Scottie Reynolds, who drove the length of the court for one of the most epic finishes in Villanova history.

The Lows

The celebration following the school’s first trip to the Final Four since the 1985 National Championship was short lived. Eventual National Champions North Carolina crushed Jay’s Wildcats 83-69. While it was rightfully praised as one of the greatest seasons in program history, it would be a slow decent over the next several years as Wright tried unsuccessfully to repeat his early achievements by straying away from what got him there in the first place.

The following year the Cats would be ranked in the Top 10 the entire season, but they faltered down the stretch losing their first game of the Big East Tournament. Then as a 2 Seed in the NCAA Tournament, the team barely eeked out an overtime victory over 15 Seed Robert Morris before falling to the 10 Seed St. Mary’s.

The next season, the teamed looked poised for a rebound with promising young talent and a #6 preseason ranking. But Wright had recruited players because they were highly ranked, not because they fit his system. That clash became evident as the season went on. By the end of the season, the team had lost its last four regular season games, fallen out of the rankings, and were bounced in the first round of the Big East Tournament. Despite the horrific finish, the ‘Cats somehow were able to earn a 9 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. But even there, Nova lost its 6th straight game and was eliminated in the first round by George Mason.

That was a wake-up call for Jay Wright, and during the 2011-12 season he course corrected his recruiting priorities and signed Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, who would help turn the program around the following season. But he still had to get through the season at hand, and it wouldn’t be pretty. For the first time in 16 years, Wright would have a losing season at 13-19. But as he had done his entire career, Wright used losses and mistakes as opportunities for improvement. He was already well on his way to returning Villanova to a championship caliber program.

The Championship

It would be a slow process for Wright to rebuild his program, but he had now started to pick up the right pieces to do it with. The next step was getting the team to play “Villanova Basketball”. It didn’t come quickly, as his team opened the 2012-13 season with a 3-3 record, including a 19 point loss at home to Columbia. But still, Wright could see his team slowly improving.

By mid-season, the ‘Cats had found their groove at 11-4. But after a three game skid they were back at the bottom of the Big East and needing some big wins if they were going to have any chance at making it back to the NCAA tournament. That’s where Jay Wright’s road to a championship officially began.

Win #378: Third Consecutive Victory Over A Top 5 Team

Career Game: 605 | Date: Mar. 6th | Opponent: Georgetown | Score: 67-57

Some people may say the Wells Fargo Center was lucky that year, but more likely it was the team finally buying into what head coach Jay Wright was preaching. The run started with a surprising victory over #5 Louisville on a Tuesday night in downtown Philly. Then on Saturday, again at the Wells Fargo Center, Nova continued their run with an overtime victory over #3 Syracuse.

But it wasn’t until the last game of the season that Nova would host its third and final game at the Wells Fargo Center against rival Georgetown. The Hoyas had already clinched a share of the Big East Title, and with a win over the Wildcats they would claim it outright. But Villanova was playing for a spot in the NCAA tournament, and weren’t about to hand the title over to hated Georgetown. It was a close game in the first half before Villanova eventually started to pull away in the second half. The ‘Cats finished the regular season by knocking off their third straight Top 5 team, and that would be enough to send them back to the NCAA tournament after missing it the previous season.

Win #406: First Outright Big East Regular Season Title

Career Game: 638 | Date: Mar. 6, 2014 | Opponent: Xavier | Score: 77-70

The off-season had been, well, unusual for the Wildcats and the rest of the Big East as realignment culminated in the “new” Big East. The conference was now just 10 teams after the “Catholic 7” added Butler, Creighton, and Xavier to refocus as a basketball first conference. Wright was now the conferences face and senior spokesman for the refreshed Big East and their new contract with Fox. But the coach would have to prove that he had the conferences premier program on the court.

Despite losing two games by wide margins to Creighton, Villanova was having one of its best regular seasons in school history as they came down the stretch. And even with another game yet to play, Wright’s team had a chance to clinch the Big East Regular Season Title when they traveled to Xavier. Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, and Ryan Arcidiacono all finished in double figures as Wright won his first outright Big East Championship, the second of his career.

The team was unable to turn their regular season success into post-season victories, losing in their first Big East Tournament game and again failing to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament despite being a 2 seed. But now the core of the team Wright envisioned when he readjusted his recruiting was in place, and they were ready to begin their run as kings of the Big East.

Win #440: First Big East Tournament Championship

Career Game: 676 | Date: Mar. 14, 2015 | Opponent: Xavier | Score: 69-52

Wright had been coaching in the Big East for over a decade. Now that his team was finally the favorite, there was still one feather missing from Jay’s cap. Not only had Wright never won the Big East Tournament, he’d never made the championship game. All of that would change in his 14th season as Villanova’s head coach.

The Wildcats had only lost two games all season as they clinched their second consecutive Big East Regular Season Title. Again the favorites to win the conference tournament, they were focused on making sure they didn’t make an early exit the way they had the previous year. After a 35 point drubbing of Marquette, Wright finally won in the semi-final game by eeking out a 2 point victory over Providence. This set up a third match-up with Xavier, a team that still had never beaten Nova.

That streak would continue as Villanova would use stifling defense and the Big East Tournaments first ever 6th Man MOP to come away with the 17 point victory. It was Wright’s first Big East Tournament Championship, and the third conference tournament championship of his career.

One of the few career accomplishments left for Wright was a national championship, and with a 1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament his team looked like one of the favorites to take home the title. But another early exit, this time a second round loss to NC State, kept the questions coming if Wright could ever make it back to the Final Four.

Win #462: First Win as the AP Poll’s #1 Ranked Team

Career Game: 702 | Date: Feb. 9, 2016 | Opponent: DePaul | Score: 86-59

A little more than two thirds of the way through the regular season Villanova was 20-3 and coming off a win at #11 Providence, one of the three teams that had beaten them. That win along with losses by UNC and Oklahoma opened the door for Villanova to become the 6th team to be ranked #1 that season. The Cats would hold the top spot in the rankings for three weeks before losing on the road to Xavier late in the season. It was yet another sign that Wright had reached the elite levels of coaching, and was now being mentioned in the same conversations with some of the all time greats.

Win #475: First Final Four Victory

Career Game: 717 | Date: Apr. 2, 2016 | Opponent: #7 Oklahoma | Score: 95-51

The first time Wright had taken his team to the Final Four, he wanted everyone to enjoy the experience. The team was so excited that they had made the sports premiere weekend, that they went into their game with UNC unprepared to take on the eventual national champions. This time around the Wildcats were all business, and their first task was exacting revenge on POTY candidate Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners.

Oklahoma had flat our routed the ‘Cats when the two met in Hawaii earlier that season, beating Villanova 55-78. But now, Nova had one of the best defenses in the country and were on one of the hottest shooting streaks in NCAA tournament history. The result was the largest blowout in Final Four history, sending Jay Wright to his first ever National Championship game.

Win #476: First National Championship

Career Game: 718 | Date: Apr. 4, 2016 | Opponent: #3 UNC | Score: 77-74

Standing in between Wright and his first National Championship was Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Wright had only faced off against Williams three times before. All three games came in the NCAA Tournament, and all three games had been losses for the Wildcat’s coach. This year, 2 Seed Villanova had been bumped from the Eastern Region of the tournament and the chance to play in Philadelphia in order to protect UNC, which had earned the 1 Seed in the East. But the two teams, both of which had been ranked #1 during the regular season, seemed destined to face each other.

What followed is widely considered to be one of the greatest NCAA Championship games ever played. It was a back and forth affair in which each team would counter any run the other team had in them. Even in the final seconds, UNC’s Marcus Paige hit an unbelievable 3 pointer to tie the game at 74-74 with 4.7 seconds remaining in the game. From there, Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins would combine for the greatest finish in NCAA Tournament history, and Jay Wright’s first National Championship. BANG!

Now in his 23rd season as a Division 1 head coach, there isn’t much Jay Wright hasn’t accomplished. His team is 21-2 and poised for a 4th consecutive Big East title and another deep NCAA run. He’s built the college program with the most wins over the last four seasons, and he’s considered one of the best coaches in the game today.

With just three wins left to 500, our countdown is getting even closer to its end. Join us after the next victory as we take a look back at the players and assistant coaches that Wright has had under his tutelage for almost a quarter of a century.