Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
VILLANOVA — The scene at the Finneran Pavilion Friday morning was both real and surreal, the giant video screen above the lobby’s press conference displaying eight words that nobody but a few souls expected to read this week.
Thank You, Jay Wright.
Welcome Home, Kyle Neptune.
Jay Wright (above) smiles while giving his farewell press conference on April 22, 2022. (Photo courtesy Olivia Pasquale/The Villanovan)
And thus, the most crucial transition point in Villanova men’s basketball history began.
It was a sendoff befitting the man who’s become the face of the program, a lengthy press conference featuring Wright, Villanova president Rev. Peter Donahue and athletic director Mark Jackson, both of whom got emotional when discussing Wright’s accomplishments and more importantly his overall value to the Main Line institution.
That was immediately followed by the welcoming of only the sixth man to lead the Wildcats since 1937, the 37-year-old tasked with maintaining the program’s status as one of the modern blue bloods of the sport. In the span of one hour, old blended into new, one former rising star in the profession giving way to the next.
“It’s definitely been a bit of a shock,” said third-year sophomore Eric Dixon, one of the players who showed up for the press conference; Bryan Antoine, Angelo Brizzi, Caleb Daniels, Jordan Longino, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Nnanna Njoku were also in the first two rows.
Wright got choked up multiple times during his speech and ensuing Q & A session, including right from the get-go, when he called it a “strange day,” noting it might be his last press conference, certainly his last of this kind.
“What Patty and I want this to be is the next step in the Villanova basketball history,” he said, referring to his wife. “The greatest thing for us has always been just to be the coach at Villanova [...] we’ve always said we don’t own this, we just got to be in charge for 21 years.”
The 21-year era that Wright led the Wildcats will go down as one of the greatest runs the Philadelphia area will have witnessed in the sports world, ‘Nova Nation’ truly going national after the Council Rock North grad led his program to a pair of Division I crowns, the capstones on a Hall of Fame career that saw him go 642-282 (.695) between 28 years at Hofstra and Villanova.
“During this season, it started to hit me that it was just the right time,” Wright said. “I started to feel just like I didn't have the edge that I've always had, where the edge always came natural to me. So I started evaluating it.”
Kyle Neptune (left) and Jay Wright embrace as the two complete their handover of the Villanova men's basketball program. (Photo courtesy Olivia Pasquale/The Villanovan)
Wright said he felt like he was only giving “70 percent” during this past season, relying more and more on his assistants and the pre-existing culture; if so, it makes this year’s Final Four run, one with a 6-foot-8 starting big man and a six-man rotation, one of his best coaching jobs yet.
“You can see certain signs of it, but we didn’t really have a clue of if he was retiring this early,” redshirt senior Caleb Daniels said. “He wasn’t as energetic throughout, and he’d get kind of tired over the time, but I thought he still had a little bit of fire in him. He’d still light a fire under us throughout each and every game.
“He’s done an amazing job throughout his years, from witnessing it from afar to just now actually playing under him, it’s just a true dream and a true blessing.”
The weeks after Wright’s fourth Final Four appearance, when it seemed from all outside appearances things were on track for season number 22, was actually a flurry of activity, a coaching search conducted as under-the-radar as they come.
“It was a struggle,” Wright admitted. “Only me, Patty and Mark knew at a time, and I remember we got to enjoy every part of it, we got to say ‘this is the last time in the Big East tournament.’ Going to Madison Square Garden, it was awesome.”
He paused again, holding back tears.
“When we won, Mark and Patty and I looked at each other like ‘holy shit, do you believe this?”
That remark drew a light smack on the arm from Donahue, and a laugh from the crowd.
Wright said the extended postseason run only made it more difficult, having to run practices and team meetings, speaking to players without giving away what he’d already made up in his mind. He urged the school’s leadership to make the transition process happen as quickly as possible, though the leak Wednesday night meant they had to make the public announcement a day or two sooner than intended.
New Villanova coach Kyle Neptune (above) had his official introduction Friday morning. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
After the season, Jackson said, the small search committee spoke to multiple candidates. But the focus narrowed in on Neptune, the first-year Fordham coach and Lehigh product who’d spent 10 years in two stints at Villanova, first as video coordinator (2008-10) and then as an assistant coach (2013-21), spending a few years at Niagara in between.
Neptune had been part of all of Villanova’s success, knew the landscape, the university. His one year at Fordham, a program in total disarray and coming off a two-win season, ended with a 16-16 season year that was a resounding success despite the .500 record. Now he’ll inherit a program with a Final Four staff ready to roll, a built-in leadership group, and all the rest that Villanova has to offer.
“We wanted to make sure when we passed it on, the program was in great shape,” Wright said. “The players are in great shape. We've got outstanding recruits coming in. We're keeping this together and that's what it's all about. And we're going to be a part of it.”
Cam Whitmore, in attendance at the press conference, is one of three players pledged to come to Villanova this summer in preparation for their freshman season, along with Mark Armstrong and Brendan Hausen. Keeping that group together will be a key sign that Neptune is able to maintain continuity within the program; none of the three has made a public statement yet one way or the other.
“I’ve talked to all of them,” Neptune said, adding “I think we’ve had great conversations and we’ll continue to talk over the next couple days.”
Quite a bit of the returning roster is familiar with Neptune from his time as an assistant coach; Brandon Slater, if he takes advantage of his extra year of eligibility, would be spending his fourth year working with Neptune. Daniels and Dixon both have plenty of familiarity from their redshirt season in 2019-20, Dixon as he was adjusting to the college lifestyle and Daniels as he was transferring in from Tulane.
“I learned a lot throughout that redshirt year, it was very tough,” Daniels said. “But he pushed us every day, me and Eric Dixon, every day, as we redshirted together. He just taught us the game, how hard you have to play Villanova basketball — how every day you have to be committed to it, how it was just a marathon, you can’t be hung up on one day, just have to continue to progress forward each and every day.”
While Neptune’s certainly going to do whatever he can to hold the Wright magic in the Davis Center and not let it escape, there is one area where he might have to make one change. Wright was famous for his impeccably-tailored suits for the vast majority of his career, but went with a more laid-back quarter-zip look throughout and after the pandemic, as did many others throughout the profession.
Neptune, who along with his staff wore suits last year at Fordham, might bring that sharp look back to the Main Line.
“Father Peter already threatened me and told me that we had to bring suits back, but we’ll talk as a staff,” he said. “I don’t know exactly how it’s going to go yet, but we’ll see.”