Jay Wright heads to the KeyBank Center court for practice with his Villanova Wildcats. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Jay Wright took a seat Wednesday and began with the usual respectful tone reserved for coaches making their opening remarks. He was happy to be back in Buffalo. He mentioned how he loved Western New York, how his top-ranked Villanova team was excited to start the NCAA Tournament.

At first, Wright sounded like a nomadic rock star who needed to be reminded where his band was playing. He just needed a little nudge in the right direction before breaking into song about returning to his coaching roots. His first coaching job was at the University of Rochester in 1984-85.

Sure enough, he unleashed his signature charm and charisma that have come to define his public persona. He comes across as a man who fell out of the pages of GQ Magazine with his $2,500 suits and good looks, like some George Clooney wannabe with a whistle.

Wright is a smooth operator and the best-dressed man in college basketball, but don't let the handsome face of the program fool you. He's a fun-loving guy and a fiercely competitive coach. Only a genuine soul with an encyclopedic basketball mind would remember players he scouted 32 years ago as a Division III assistant coach in Rochester.

"Coming back to Western New York is always cool," Wright said. "I have great memories about starting at the University of Rochester and recruiting the Buffalo area – not getting Rick Wnuk, not getting the Torgalskis (Ron and Rick) and trying to recruit Christian Laettner as a freshman, not knowing he would be that good."

Wright was a two-sport star in high school while growing up outside of Philadelphia. Some believed he had more potential in baseball before basketball tugged him away. He spent many evenings during his youth attending games in the storied Palestra before he started imagining himself coaching his own program someday. Villanova was his dream job.

You can safely assume he's been around the block a few times over the past three-plus decades. His return to Buffalo this year seemed like a scrapbook of his transition from college player to coach. He played college ball for Bucknell, which will meet West Virginia in the first round Thursday at KeyBank Center.

Villanova will play Mount St. Mary's on Thursday night in the first round. Seventeen years ago, his first visit to the Big Dance as a head coach came in Buffalo. Oklahoma State drilled his Hofstra team in the opener. Three years ago, he endeared himself to Buffalo fans while describing the experience.

"We were happy to be here," he said at the time. "We got hammered, and we got hammered after the game."

It sounded about right.

Villanova has been hammering teams for years under Wright, who returns this year as coach of the defending national champions. The Wildcats (31-3) evolved into a basketball powerhouse with a senior class that has gone 128-16 over the past four years. No team has a better winning percentage over that period.

A year ago at this time, 'Nova was trying to overcome the perception that it couldn't win the big one under Wright. It failed to get through the first weekend of the NCAAs for five consecutive tournaments, plus a 13-19 season in which the Wildcats weren't invited. One loss came in Buffalo in 2014, when Connecticut delivered a second-round knockout en route to a national title.

There were whispers that Wright could  take his team only so far. Villanova hadn't won a title since 1985, when it played a near-perfect game under Rollie Massimino in a win over Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown. Some doubted whether the Wildcats would ever win a title under Wright, who was an assistant under Massimino for five seasons.

"I've known him since he was young," Massimino, now 82, said by telephone Wednesday. "I knew once he got started in the major leagues, he would be terrific. He knows the game. He knows how to treat people. He knows how to recruit, and he knows how to run a program. He's my boy."

Wright silenced his critics last year when 'Nova beat its first five tournament opponents by an average of 24 points, including a 95-41 blowout over Oklahoma on the national semifinal. The Wildcats beat North Carolina on Kris Jenkins' three-pointer at the buzzer for their first championship since 1985.

It was a white-knuckle game with an epic ending to a great performance by both teams. Wright barely cracked a smile while his players celebrated on the floor. He calmly walked over to North Carolina coach Roy Williams and shook his hand, maintaining the cool personality that had been on display for years.

"He looks the same from tipoff to the end of the game," Wright's tailor, Gabriele D'Annunzio of D&B Tailors, said Wednesday. "The way he dresses is the way he coaches – details, details, details. I've been in business for 50 years, and I've been working with Jay for 10 years. Nobody has ever said a bad word about this man."

It's funny how quickly perceptions can change with one game – or one shot. Wright was the same coach before winning a title. People realized what was true all along: He was much smarter than his suits. He's less Broadway showman and more Broad Street bully when it comes to building tough, competitive teams.

The only difference was the result.

"The blessing about Coach is nothing ever really changes," Villanova guard Josh Hart said. "No matter if you're coming off a national championship or a 13-19 year ... the core values are still the same. The commitment to our core values is still the same. The only thing that might have changed is him drilling those core values a little bit more."

Jenkins gained instant notoriety after hitting the winner against North Carolina, of course. Wright said his players suffered from a championship hangover, which was inevitable after becoming the toast of Philadelphia and taking a trip to the White House. For the most part, Wright and his team returned to the business of winning.

Villanova opened the season with 14 straight victories and was No. 1 in the country for five straight weeks. Two losses came to Butler, the first of which dropped the Wildcats to No. 4. They regained the top spot after winning their final five games, including the Big East Tournament.

Now he's back where he started, retracing steps that led him to Canisius High and Nichols School to see some of Buffalo's best players in the mid-1980s. You'll know him when you see him. He's the guy with the championship ring who is dressed to the nines. As for the others ...

Wnuk played for Buffalo State and lives in North Carolina. Ron Torgalski played hoops for Hamilton College and is now UB's baseball coach. Rick Torgalski played baseball at Duke and lives in Atlanta. And what became of that Laettner fella? He knew a little something about defending a national championship.

"Thirty years," Wright said with a laugh. "I would have been happy if I could have been the guy who replaced Mike Neer at Rochester, at that time. I was just so happy to be coaching. It seems crazy right now that you get to coach at Villanova. I didn't know any of this was possible."

 

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