Like Its Players, Villanova Keeps Coming Back

NEW ORLEANS — Tim Thomas still holds a unique distinction in the history of the Villanova men’s basketball program.

Thomas, a 6-foot-10 Paterson, N.J., native, is the only player to declare for the N.B.A. draft after just one season on campus. Thomas left Villanova after the 1996-97 season, and the New Jersey Nets selected him seventh overall before trading him to Philadelphia.

Back then, Thomas could have gone straight from high school to the N.B.A. Starting with the 2006 draft, all players had to be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school to be eligible.

“I was a pro guy taking a chance on going to college and I chose Nova,” Thomas said in a phone interview this week.

In the 25 years since he left the program, Villanova has been successful at the highest levels of the college game — the Wildcats have won two of the last five national championships — and produced a steady stream of N.B.A. prospects, but no one-and-done players. As the Wildcats head into this weekend’s Final Four, Coach Jay Wright’s approach stands in stark contrast to those of the other three programs here. Duke, North Carolina and Kansas have all had their share of one-and-done talent over the years. Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who will retire following this tournament, Duke’s current roster has three freshmen projected to be first-round draft picks this summer.

“One of the things that we really try to focus on at Villanova is authenticity,” Wright, who has been Villanova’s head coach since 2001 and who is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame, said this week. “We don’t try to out-Kentucky Kentucky, or out-Duke Duke. We have great respect for those programs. We have always tried to be the best Villanova we can be.”

Wright has instilled several ideals: emphasizing program players over individual stars, running an offensive system that features guards who can post up and shoot, placing team defense, rebounding and culture over personal branding. It is common for Villanova’s best players to be juniors, seniors or, as is the case this year with point guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels, graduate students. In an interview with ESPN Tuesday night, Gillespie described Villanova’s culture: “We have a saying, ‘Everybody’s status is the same but their role is different,’ and we live by that. We treat everybody the same. And I think that’s why part of the reason why coach has built something really special here.”

“Everyone should applaud what they’ve built there,” said Kansas Coach Bill Self, whose teams lost to the eventual champion Wildcats in both the 2016 and 2018 N.C.A.A. tournaments. Kansas will meet them again on Saturday in a national semifinal. “And of course, Jay’s the ringmaster of that. You got to beat them, they don’t beat themselves.”

Villanova has won five Big East tournament titles since 2013. The Wildcats beat Creighton in this year’s final at Madison Square Garden.Credit…Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The numbers speak for themselves on several levels.

There are nine former Villanova players in the N.B.A., tied with Virginia for the most of any school without any one-and-dones.

Wright has said that he would “love” to successfully recruit some one-and-done players, but he just hasn’t found the right fit. (Omari Spellman, the former Villanova forward now playing in South Korea after competing in the N.B.A., was a redshirt freshman and thus not a pure one-and-done when he entered the draft in 2018.)

Bryan Antoine, a junior guard, was tabbed as a potential one-and-done player when he came to Villanova, but injuries have hampered his career and prevented him from leaving early.

“We still want one-and-done guys if they want to be part of Villanova culture,” Wright said this week. “We still want them, so I don’t want to say we don’t do that. We just were able to stick with what we do at the beginning.”

In the one-and-done era, only Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 have won a national title while relying heavily on one-and-dones in their starting lineups. North Carolina captured the title in 2017 with the one-and-done big man Tony Bradley coming off the bench; he was Carolina’s first one-and-done in a decade. The university had seven under Roy Williams, its coach from 2003-21. Virginia in 2019 and Baylor in 2021 both had multiple future pros, but not one-and-done freshmen.

“I think the reason the Dukes and Kentuckys have won it, and I really mean this, I don’t think anyone understands how difficult it is to coach freshmen in high-level games,” Wright said at the 2018 tournament. “I don’t care how good they are. I don’t care if it’s LeBron. You just haven’t been expected to have the kind of detail needed to play. And I think John and Coach K do the best job of that.”

He added: “And then there are only so many of those guys that are one-and-done that are capable of winning national championships.”

That is especially true this year. The sport is filled with experienced teams featuring fifth-year seniors and players who no longer have to sit out a year after transferring. Duke, North Carolina and Kansas all have their share of veterans, too. Self pointed out in a video news conference Tuesday that his team features the senior guard Ochai Agbaji, one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy as the national player of the year; the senior forward David McCormack and the junior guard Christian Braun.

The Final Four in the Men’s and Women’s Tournaments

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The national semifinals. March Madness is narrowing down to the top teams, and will culminate with the Final Four teams facing off in the women’s and men’s tournaments on April 1 and April 2, respectively. Here’s a closer look at the semifinals:

Men’s: Duke vs. North Carolina. The Duke Blue Devils, which beat Arkansas to clinch a spot in the Final Four in New Orleans, will play against their fiercest rival, North Carolina, after the Tar Heels made short work of underdog St. Peter’s.

Men’s: Villanova vs. Kansas. After trailing at halftime, the Kansas Jayhawks dominated the second half of their game against Miami to set up a matchup against the Villanova Wildcats, which outlasted lower seeded Houston.

Women’s: South Carolina vs. Louisville. The top-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks proved too tough for Creighton and advanced to its fourth national semifinal under Coach Dawn Staley. They will face the Louisville Cardinals, which beat Michigan in their fourth straight regional final.

Women’s: Stanford vs. Connecticut. After injuries, losses to unranked teams and a second-round scare, the UConn Huskies advanced to their 14th straight Final Four, where they will face Stanford, the reigning champion. The Cardinal bested Texas to reach the national semifinals.

Villanova’s roster doesn’t have anyone who jumps out as a future N.B.A. star, but Gillespie, Samuels and the junior guard Justin Moore (who tore an Achilles’ tendon in the round of 8 and is out for the season) all have pro potential.

“Villanova under Jay Wright has been able to accomplish three very hard things,” said Chris Ekstrand, a consultant to N.B.A. basketball operations whose work involves the draft. “One, to successfully recruit talented, intelligent players. Two, to develop the skills as well as the basketball I.Q. of those players. And three, to retain those players for several years.”

In 2021, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, left, became the most recent former Villanova player to be selected in the N.B.A. draft. He played two seasons at Villanova.Credit…Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Wright said an inflection point for the program came in 2013, when the Big East Conference broke up and universities with football programs, like Syracuse and Pittsburgh, moved on to bigger leagues that generated more revenue from football.

Wright at one point felt uncertain about where Villanova would end up, and he and his staff knew they might have to radically alter their recruiting and coaching philosophies, perhaps turning toward more of an emphasis on one-and-done players.

But once the new Big East settled as a collection of basketball-centric schools, adding Butler, Xavier and Creighton — Midwestern universities that were not in the conference’s original geographical footprint — and signing a 12-year, $500 million deal with Fox Sports that added to the league’s visibility and stability, Wright settled on a new course for Villanova.

“We’re in this league,” he said. “Let’s start with trying to be the best of this league.”

Since the formation of the new Big East, Villanova has dominated the league, winning at least a share of seven regular-season conference titles and capturing five conference tournament titles, including this year’s championship. And, of course, there are the four Final Four appearances in the last 13 tournaments, and the two N.C.A.A. championships.

Still, Thomas would like to see his former program add some one-and-done talent.

“If we’re going to be having to play Duke and Kentucky and Kansas and North Carolina almost every single year, and these teams are loaded with five or four pro guys, then why not have one or two of those guys to maintain that level of consistency?” he said. “But to Jay’s credit, what he’s been able to do with the guys staying in school for a few years and developing, it’s been amazing, it really has been amazing.”

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