Over the coming weeks of the NCAA tournament, you'll undoubtedly notice a Dove Men + Care commercial starring Villanova's head coach Jay Wright as one of the best decision-makers in basketball.
We recently had the opportunity to ask coach Wright about that campaign before eventually veering off onto such topics as Doug McDermott, recruiting, parody accounts on Twitter and the best place to get cheese steaks.
Bleacher Report: If I’m not mistaken, you went to high school not far from Philly. Were you a fan of Villanova growing up? And whether you rooted for them as a kid or not, was it weird to become the head coach of the somewhat-hometown program?
Jay Wright: You know what, that’s exactly what it was. Villanova was my favorite team. I wanted to go there and play there, but I wasn’t good enough. I went to Bucknell and played at Bucknell, but I was still a Villanova fan. I still followed them.
I was an assistant coach at Villanova under Rollie Massimino, and even that was a thrill for me. To become the head coach…there are still times where I have to pinch myself and say “Man, this is pretty cool.”
B/R: I see that you followed Massimino to UNLV. How was that?
JW: That trip to Las Vegas. Living in Vegas for two years and coaching at UNLV. If I was allowed, I could write a book on that, my man. That was the experience of a lifetime. For a guy from the Big East to go into that right after Jerry Tarkanian, that was a wild time. I really think it was one of the great learning experiences in my career. It was only two years, but I use so much from that experience in everything that I do.
B/R: I grew up in central PA, so I’m at least geographically familiar with the Big 5, but I’ve never actually been to one of those games. You guys not only went 4-0 this year, but you won those games by an average of 22.5 points per game. How much does that unofficial title mean to you and your program compared to, say, a Big East tournament championship?
JW: That’s a really good question. If you’re in Philly, those games mean so much. Not just during the basketball season, but when they really count the most is in the offseason.
Philly is a real parochial town. Everyone is playing golf in the spring, and you’re with all the alumni from all the schools. And then in the summer, everyone goes down to the Jersey Shore, and all those alumni are there and that’s what they’re talking about.
They don’t care if you went to a Final Four. All they care about is how did Villanova do against Temple? How did Penn do against La Salle? No one else knows about it because they only really talk about it in Philly, but it’s actually a pretty big thing.
B/R: Having established that we're both from Pennsylvania, I have to ask: Pat’s or Geno’s?
JW: You know what? I have my own spot: Chubby’s. Chubby’s is in Manayunk, and I think Chubby’s is the best. When I go down to Pat’s and Geno’s, I’m a neutral nerd. I do one one time and the other the next.
Jim’s is another favorite if I’m in south Philly. Pat’s and Geno’s have a flat steak, but Chubby’s and Jim’s chop it up. That’s what I like.
B/R: What sort of adjustments, if any, have you made to your coaching approach this season in light of the face lift that the Big East got in conference realignment? And what sort of impact do you expect the realignment to have on Villanova’s “recruitability?”
JW: It definitely concerned us going into the season. You just didn’t know how people were going to perceive things.
In recruiting, since every game has been on Fox Sports and we’ve been playing well, we’ve had really positive reaction from all the recruits.
We played Syracuse this season and we’re going to try to keep some of those Big East rivalries alive with Syracuse, Connecticut, etc. So our out-of-conference schedule changes a little bit.
What we’ve really found is that this new Big East is really unique in our country, because it’s a conference that’s built on basketball. Everybody plays each other twice. You’re creating a real familiarity with the schools and the players. It’s really becoming a unique entity. It’s never going to be the ACC or the Big Ten, but it’s something unique for basketball purists that has been exciting.
B/R: I’ve especially liked having Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery announcing some of the games on Fox Sports.
JW: Yo, I agree. Those two crack me up. I actually told them before one game, “Look, I’m not trying to be a brown-noser here, but I was listening to you guys in a previous game. It was like an 18-point game, but I just kept listening because you guys are really funny.”
We sometimes play back for our players some of the things that Gus says because it really fires you up.
B/R: Josh Hart was not a super highly rated recruit, but he has really been an integral part of your rotation this year. Without giving away any secrets, are there any specific skill sets or personality types that you search for when you’re on the recruiting trail, or does it totally change from year to year based on team needs?
JW: You brought up the perfect guy. He has the skill set that we look for in everybody.
Sometimes it’s hard to dictate whether it’s going to translate from high school to college, but he was an impactful player on every play in high school. If he had the ball, he was aggressive making plays on offense. If he didn’t have the ball, he was offensive rebounding, or setting good screens. Defensively, if he was guarding the ball, he was aggressive. If he was off the ball, he was getting steals and defensive rebounds. Always in on every play.
Some guys do that in high school and don’t have the same energy level in college. But Josh Hart has done the exact same thing in college (as he did in high school).
I don’t think many people expected much from him, but college coaches knew. He wasn’t hyped, but Rutgers wanted him really bad. Miami wanted him bad. And he has proven to be exactly what we wanted him to be. He is in on every play. He is one of our best rebounders, one of our best defenders and one of our best slashers.
B/R: Pretty much every high-ranking team in the country ends up going through a bit of a late-February funk, and you guys haven’t exactly been immune to that phenomenon this year. Do you have any thoughts on what causes that to happen, whether it’s physical fatigue, mental fatigue, or just a matter of other teams feeling like they have more to play for?
JW: You just hit it. It’s a combination of those factors. At that point in the season, I don’t think you can avoid those factors. Everybody in the country that is winning and is already in a position that they know they’re in the tournament, it gets to be a little bit of a grind.
When you’re winning, people are watching you a lot to try to figure out specifically how to beat you, because that’s the game that can get them into the tournament. You put all that together, and it makes it look like you’re in a bit of a slump, but you’re not. You’re just dealing with all of those factors.
Then you come out to the Big East tournament and breathe a little sigh of relief that you get to start over again.
B/R: You've had the “opportunity” to coach against Wooden Award candidates like Doug McDermott, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, C.J. Fair and Tyler Ennis. Semaj Christon and Bryce Cotton probably won’t make the list of finalists, but I can’t imagine those guys have been easy to prepare for, either. In your opinion—aside from the guys in your locker room—who is the best player in the country this year?
JW: I really think it’s very clear that Doug McDermott is the best player in the country. Some of those other guys like Joel Embiid maybe—maybe—might have a little bit more of an upside down the road. But if you look at right now, (McDermott is) a basketball player that has every possible skill in the game of basketball and is a great leader, makes his team win and makes everyone around him better. I think he is by far the best player in the country.
When he beats you twice and scores 39 against you, you better say that about him.
Last summer I was with the USA basketball fantasy camp. Doug was one of the few college guys to take a part of that, and I got to see him against the young NBA guys. He was just as effective. He fit in. Not a lot of people got to see that, but I saw it up close and personal. It scared the hell out of me. He’s the real deal.
B/R: Perhaps I should have asked who you think is the second-best player in the country, since McDermott is the unanimous favorite right now. I don’t know why more people don’t think he’s a top-10 draft pick. He could be the next Larry Bird.
JW: I really agree. So much of that Top 10 is based on potential of how long you can have that guy. I think being a four-year player probably hurts him in that respect.
I just talked to a president of an NBA team and had this conversation. He might not be with you as long, but he’s going to be impactful right away, because he is a complete player right now. Some of these younger stars that he’s going to be playing against, he’s going to be smarter than and better than right away.
B/R: I’m living in the D.C. Area now. There was so much buzz around here when the Wizards drafted John Wall, but it took a couple of years before he was really ready to lead this team. McDermott should be able to avoid that learning curve.
JW: I don’t think McDermott is a Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade type, but I think he would have the impact that John Wall had, but quicker.
B/R: Who or what was your biggest motivating factor to go into coaching, and what piece of advice would you offer to anyone looking to one day become the next Jay Wright?
JW: Definitely my dad. He coached us in baseball and football all my life. He never touched a basketball, but he was always coaching. I always remember about him, with every team, he always thought, “I want to make the weakest link as good as he can be, and that’s gonna make our team the best it can be.” He always spent the most time with the guys who were struggling the most.
And then Rollie Massimino was my idol because he was coaching my favorite team. When I followed Villanova and got into coaching, they won the National Championship. And then he hired me (as an assistant).
In terms of being a major college coach, here’s the advice I would give somebody. Coaching isn’t like being a plumber where there’s an apprenticeship where you learn specific skills. It’s not set up that way. You gotta make sure you get with somebody who can really teach you how to coach and teach you the right way to have a meaningful career in this business.
Don’t worry about how much money you make in the beginning, but stick with that guy and learn, so that when you leave him, you are prepared to be successful. You might not make any money in the beginning, but it’s worth it.
B/R: Apologies for bringing up old wounds, but Villanova hasn’t done so hot in the past couple of NCAA tournaments. What’s different about this year’s group of guys that makes you capable of getting back to the Final Four?
JW: I think this team has gone through a process kind of like our Final Four team did. Last year they got better throughout the year, and made it to the NCAA tournament. This year, they’ve gotten a lot better from the previous year. Now, hopefully when we go to the tournament, they’ve been there, they’ve tasted defeat and don’t have the fear of failure or the wow factor.
I remember when I was a head coach at Hofstra, the first time we took a team to the tournament, there was a wow factor for me. As the head coach I had to act like there wasn’t, but there was. So as a kid going to the tournament for the first time, there’s a lot to it that really shocks you and kind of distracts you. But I think this team has gotten that experience behind them.
B/R: Do you still keep up with how Hofstra’s doing? It’s been a rough couple of years.
JW: Yeah, I do. I’m always a Hofstra fan. I’ll tell you what, Hofstra’s gonna be good. They’ve got some good transfers sitting out and a great coach in Joe Malloch. The league has changed where I think they can win that league.
I promise you, those guys are going to be really good in the next couple of years.
B/R: Everyone who’s anyone has a parody account on Twitter, and there’s one out there right now simply called @JayWrightsSuit. Apparently the person is masquerading as your coaching attire because you’ve been named to a few of GQ’s Fashionable Fours. Is that flattering, amusing, annoying or something else altogether?
JW: We were just talking about that. Our Sports Information Director tells me that should be flattering, so I’ll take that, but it’s a little scary because it pops up on my Twitter. I see it. I see what whoever’s doing that says, and sometimes it’s crazy stuff. It can be a little unsettling.
I hope people realize it’s not me. It’s never anything really bad, but it’s definitely some crazy stuff I would never say.
B/R: I'd like to finish with a coaching philosophy question, because we see this scenario almost every night in some game around the country. One team scores to tie the game with roughly 30 seconds remaining and the other team comes down and dribbles out the clock before taking the last shot. Why doesn’t the team on defense in that situation foul to get the ball back?
JW: You know, Jim Valvano used to do it all the time.
For us, it comes down to the fact that we preach a triangle in our program, and the foundation of our triangle is defense. I feel that philosophically with our guys, if we fouled there purposely, we would be saying that we don’t have confidence in stopping the other team.
We work on that situation almost every day where we have set plays that we have confidence in if there’s seven seconds left, four seconds left, etc. We play the percentages. We believe we can get a stop, and if not, we’ll probably get it back and we have a play then that we have confidence in.
B/R: If the team on offense runs it down to the wire like they should, you have an almost-zero percent chance of winning in regulation as the team on defense. Maybe I’m too offensively minded, but I would think you’d want the ball in your hands at the end of the game.
JW: There are a lot of coaches that believe they can outscore you. If that’s your philosophy, you really should foul in those situations. It does make sense. Because you’re trusting that you’ll execute better on your end of the court.
If we were playing a really good offensive team like Creighton, and we had the ball for the last shot, I wouldn’t want them to foul us. I’d want to get the last shot so we wouldn’t have to defend them.
B/R: What can you tell me about the Dove Men + Care decision-makers campaign that you’re involved with?
JW: It’s really cool. Dove Men + Care got a campaign for the March Madness for the top decision-makers in basketball. I got to do a commercial where I get to make a really easy decision to choose Dove Men + Care for my skin care and grooming. It’s good stuff man. I use the body wash. You got to check out the commercial if you get the chance. You can see it on Dovemencare.com.
I gotta compete with Jay Bilas, (John) Thompson and (Tom) Izzo in the annals of great Dove Men + Care commercials.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.