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Wright, Villanova cherish normalcy through basketball, start of Big East play

Jay Wright and his Wildcats focus on the positives and place an emphasis on mental health during uncertain season.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at DePaul Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of these unprecedented times, it seems that Villanova basketball is the one thing that brings Jay Wright and the rest of his team a much needed sense of normalcy. Many things have changed and many sacrifices were made, but the Wildcats’ love for basketball remains.

“If we’re not practicing basketball, we’re locked in our rooms and we’re not doing anything, so practice this year is a lot different than its been other years,” Wright said. “Sometimes practice can be a grind, but this year it just gets us out and gives us some normalcy. We actually all enjoy practice this year. We’ve also made practice different this year because of the players’ mental health.

“We’re not as demanding, practice is a little bit more based on fun. We’re really trying to look at those practice opportunities as a chance to get out of our rooms, get out of our houses, get on the court, and do what we love to do.”

With all of these adjustments and concessions, Wright emphasizes the importance of mental health this season. He may be captain of the ship, but the schedule this year is driven by the players’ input and their well-being in mind.

“What we are trying to do at Villanova is work and make our decisions based on our players’ mental health and our players’ safety and every decision we made up in Mohegan Sun was based on what our players decided,” Wright said. “If they feel it’s best for them to play mentally, we’re going to play. If they feel they want to go home for Christmas, they are going to go home for Christmas. We don’t normally run our program this way, but based on the pandemic, every decision we make is based on their mental health and their safety.”

Wright does not yet have his team playing at the level of past years, given the lack of practice time in the summer and fall.

“We’re really not where we want to be, but we know we can’t push these kids too hard because of their sacrifices,” he said.

With level of isolation that is currently necessary to play college basketball, the players are forced to give up time with their friends and family just to be able to play the game they love.

Swingman Cole Swider states that being in the bubble has brought them closer as a team as they “eat together, watch TV and Netflix together, and spend a lot of time as a group watching game film together.”

In a season filled with isolation, safety regulations, bubbles, and sudden scheduling changes, the Wildcats relish in every practice and game they get to play, but they’ll especially look forward to Friday night’s matchup against a familiar foe and the start of Big East play.

The Villanova-Georgetown rivalry goes back to the days of the “old” Big East. Both teams will feel right at home when they face each other.

“Once you get on the court it is the one place, even without fans, that you just feel normal,” Wright said. “This Georgetown rivalry really does give us a feeling of some normalcy, and I think that’s why our players are willing to sacrifice everything.“

With all the craziness and cancellation of games, along with the never-ending debate of should-they-or-shouldn’t-they-play to add to the off the court drama, the Villanova players are just happy to be able to play the game they love.

“Everything is different this year, nothing is the same so we’re taking it one day at a time,” senior guard Collin Gillespie said. “We’re really grateful to be able to play with other schools being shut down and the uncertainty of the year so we’re just grateful to get there and get in the game and play another team.”

Although it feels like an eternity ago, the last time the Wildcats and Hoyas squared off was back in March. Villanova squeezed out a one-point victory. Wright is expecting another battle.

“They’re a team that has three really experienced players that have had success against us in (Jamorko) Pickett, (Jahvon) Blair, and (Qudus) Wahab,” Wright said. “They’ve added some nice veteran pieces in their transfers of (Jalen) Harrison, (Donald) Carey, and also (Chudier) Bile, and they got some really good young guys. Patrick (Ewing) has put these guys together really quickly. They looked against West Virginia, and a lot better against Coppin State, so we expect a typical Georgetown-Villanova battle.”

With everything going on around them, regardless of outcome, Wright and his ‘Cats feel fortunate to be able to lace them up against their longtime Big East rival.

“Even in the locker room, before and after the game, it is not normal because we keep the assistant coaches out for social distancing,” Wright said. “Nothing is the same, until you get on the court with three referees, … the game is still the same.”