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Jay Wright adjusting to COVID uncertainty as season approaches

09/17/2020, 6:00pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Jay Wright (above) has had to adjust to a new style of program management this offseason. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Jay Wright is as meticulous a coach as you’ll find anywhere in the country.

The eventual Hall of Famer has run the Villanova program like a Navy admiral during his 20-year run on the Main Line, keeping close tabs on just about everything you can imagine. Whatever happens in the confines of the Davis Center or Finneran Pavilion, you can bet it’s because Wright wants it that way: practice schedules, recruiting decisions, team study sessions, player meetings, and so much more.

“We’ve been doing this here for a while, we’ve got a good system in place, we’ve got our way of doing things,” Wright said Thursday afternoon on a Zoom press conference, “and it’s been totally thrown out the window here with the COVID protocols.”

The phrase “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable” is a coaching cliché, but Wright didn’t use it lightly when discussing how he’s handling the current state of athletics in the midst of the pandemic. For a coach who’s used to being in complete control at all times, a constant state of fluctuation is no easy place to reside.

But that’s the reality of life these days for Wright, and the rest of American society. Constantly-changing testing situations, infection numbers, and uneven political guidance has left college athletics in the dark all summer. 

“We had Zoom meetings in June where I’ve told the guys, ‘we’re going to come back in the beginning of July,’” Wright said. “Then I’d get on a week later and say ‘well, we’re coming back the middle of July.’ Then a week later, ‘We’re coming back in the middle of August.’ 

“I’ve learned to tell them, ‘look, I’m just giving you as much information as I have right now.’”

It’s certainly been a period of adjustment for the two-time National Champion head coach, who’s yet to get his full team together for a workout. 

Still, Wright’s found a few ways to keep his players safe and locked in as much as possible. Villanova’s classes are a mixture of in-person and online courses, and Wright has his players who are attending virtual classes come sit in the Finneran Pavilion to attend their lectures. Wright said the team’s dorm rooms are next to a stairwell at the end of the hall, so his players don’t have to walk past too many other students; they’re also not allowed to have visitors in their rooms.

“We’re really trying to create our own bubble, in the best way that we can,” Wright said. “We’re asking them to be really vigilant. It’s a lot of pressure on an 18-to-22-year-old kid, but so far so good.”

Workouts are held four players at a time in set pods, allowing the Wildcats’ staff an opportunity to get some face-to-face time with their players, though not enough to see them against most of their teammates.

No Villanova player or coach has yet tested positive for COVID, Wright said, but he’s certainly aware that could change at any point.

“I think what we’re trying to do is just make our decisions on the run here and be comfortable with that,” he added. “We’re preparing like everybody can go, but we always know, if we have to change something, everybody’s ready to do that.”

Wright and his program got their first bit of good news in a long while this week, as the NCAA announced Wednesday that the 2020-2021 college basketball season was on track to begin Nov. 25, with practices beginning Oct. 14. There’s also a “transition period” which will run from Sep. 21-Oct. 14, allowing teams to begin working together for up to eight hours per week on the court and a total of 12 hours including strength training and conditioning.

But that start date means the work is on to get a schedule laid out: the NCAA is allowing for men’s teams to schedule a maximum of 25 individual games, 25 games and a two-game exempt tournament, or 24 games and a three-game exempt tournament. Before it can figure out which games on its original schedule it can keep and which it has to move, Villanova first needs to wait on the Big East to determine how it will work its league schedule.

“One of the things as a league that we want to do is just try to get in as many games as we can, and it starts with league games,” Wright said. “If you can get in as many league games and get them scheduled, then try to schedule in as many non-conference games as possible, that’s how we’re looking at right now.”

“And we’re literally in the middle of it. We met today, we’re meeting again tomorrow, we’re in the middle of it, figuring out how we can get our Big East schedule done first and quickly.”

At risk is the 2020-21 Big 5 slate. Villanova was scheduled to play both Temple and Penn before Nov. 25, and the shorter schedule means the number of non-league games will already be reduced. The Wildcats schedule had included a prime-time matchup against Virginia on Dec. 19 at Madison Square Garden, while the Big East/Big Ten Gavitt Tip-Off Games were supposed to take place before the Nov. 25 deadline. St. Joe’s and La Salle are scheduled for after Nov. 25, but the uncertainty of the Big East schedule means those games could have to be changed or cancelled as well.

“Once we can put together our conference schedule, we can see, how does that overlay on the old non-conference schedule?” Wright said. “So right away we look at our Big Ten challenge game, it’s already out of the parameters of the new schedule, so how do we reschedule those games? Right now we’re all scrambling and spending a lot of time on scheduling.”

There’s no immediate answer to the scheduling problem. There’s the matter of which venues are usable, which states (if any) will allow spectators and how that could work; there’s even been discussion of a bubble for some of the league season, Wright admitted, though he followed that up by saying it was not the most likely scenario. Villanova typically plays several home games each year in the Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers’ typical home, but there’s not much point in playing at a 20,000 seat arena if none of them are filled. 

While there are still a ton of questions to be answered, and a situation that’s always changing, it doesn’t seem like the college basketball season will really be here until Nov. 25 rolls around and tip-offs actually happen. Until then, Wright and his Wildcats have to go with the situation currently available to them, which for the first time points towards local products Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree being able to play their senior seasons for a team with hopes of winning its third national championship in six years. 

“I just sensed a little bit of relief in the guys today, a little extra motivation in them today, same thing with our staff,” Wright said. “It has really given us some clarity to go forward, and it’s taken a little workload off us, because we were all preparing for anything. Now we’ve got some parameters to work within.”

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