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Former Villanova assistant Halcovage takes reins at Buffalo

04/19/2023, 12:45pm EDT
By Kevin Callahan

By Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)


Not surprisingly, the Jay Wright coaching tree continues to spread.

Under the Hall of Fame coach, the assistant coaches on the 2008-09 Villanova Final Four now includes five current Division I head coaches with the recent hiring of George Halcovage at the University of Buffalo. 

The other former coaches are Kyle Neptune, who replaced Wright at Villanova, new Temple head coach Adam Fisher, Patrick Chambers (Florida Gulf Coast) and Keith Urgo (Fordham). Also, Jason Donnelly, a former Wright assistant from that Final Four team, is the Furman athletic director.

“I think everybody individually had goals that they wanted to excel in their career path in college athletics and either become a head coach or eventually transition into being in some sort of leadership position,” Halcovage said, “so, I don't think you talk about it then, you're just young and hungry.”

Halcovage, who attended Nativity BVM High School in Pottsville, Pa., came to Villanova as a graduate assistant in 2008 and was a part of four NCAA Final Four teams over the next 15 years, including the special staff in 2009 when he helped Nova reach the national semifinals in Detroit.

“You want to do great at the job and we know, we were lucky enough to have success then together, and in working with those guys, I'm not surprised to see any of their great success and obviously we got to work for a Hall of Famer and coach and really learn under his tutelage,” Halcovage said.

Former Villanova men's basketball assistant George Halcovage, left, was announced as the University of Buffalo's head coach on April 3. (Photo: University of Buffalo Athletics)

Really, no one should be surprised, especially not Wright, who called Halcovage, “one of the best coaches we've ever had at Villanova.”

“He has recruited, developed, and mentored our players with passion,” Wright said about Halcovage, whose wife, Lizzy is expecting their first child in July. “George is a great leader and basketball mind. We'll miss him and Lizzy. The University at Buffalo is getting a creative, committed head basketball coach.” 

Halcovage’s trajectory toward running his own program continued in 2010-11 when he was promoted to video coordinator, through being elevated to the director of basketball operations, which he served as in 2015-16 when the Wildcats won the national championship and then as an assistant coach when Nova won another NCAA title in 2017-18. 

“I think looking back, I remember my first year, Coach Wright always said be ‘humble and hungry,’” said Halcovage, who was elevated to associate head coach under Wright in 2021 and remained in that capacity under Neptune last season. “Like you got to every day, just keep being your best and keep getting better and it's a process.

“And if you have goals, you're going to have to work really hard to get there and now that I look back on it, to see how hard everybody worked, it just showed the character of those guys to be able to do what we've been able to do.

“And, we take great pride in being able to be a part of that special group, to go to a Final Four at Villanova together.

“And then now in our own roles, in different places where we're at, to be able to lead there with the core foundation that was formulated back in our early days at Villanova.”

Halcovage, who played basketball at Babson College where he was a 2008 graduate, helped lead the Wildcats to a record of 389-131 (.748), to the pair of national championships, four NCAA regional championships, seven Big East regular season championships and five Big East Tournament championships.

"George has proven himself as one of the top assistant coaches in collegiate basketball,” University of Buffalo athletic director Mark Alnutt said. “His knowledge of the game, energy, passion and work ethic allowed him to climb the proverbial ladder and assume the role of associate head coach at Villanova University. 

"He has experience winning at the highest level, he's a tenacious recruiter and has the exceptional ability to connect with people. He has a very clear vision of sustained excellence for UB Basketball.”

Halcovage has work to do improving the roster for Buffalo, which finished 15-17 last season. 

And, although blueblood UConn won the NCAA title, newcomers Florida Atlantic, San Diego State and Miami all crashed the Final Four, giving hope for all D-I programs to at least dream.

“I think there is just in general, more parity  in college basketball right now in terms of top to bottom,” Halcovage said. “I think it's a great thing for the sport. March Madness itself is an incredible event. So, to see all of those teams make runs like they did — and there's been times where mid-majors made great runs before — but to see them make it the way they did this year.”

The transfer portal opens doors for new coaches like Halcovage to turn programs around right away.

“I think there's opportunities for guys who can go play right away and don't have to sit out a year, to be able to go right into a system where there's an opportunity for them and excel,” Halcovage said. “I think with the landscape now with the transfer portal, it's definitely increased the ability for mid-majors to really be able to have success quicker.”

For the first time since 1979, there was not a McDonald's All-American player on one of the four teams. For non-power Five schools who don’t lure the elite high school talent, this is another reason to develop a NIL model to compete.

“You’ve got to be competitive,” he said about NIL. “We want to compete at all levels here at UB. So we understand that this is a part of the landscape of college basketball.”

“You know, the portal is something you have to be open to and we are and we're going to embrace it, but try to be true to what we're building here at Buffalo. We want to bring in guys that really want to be a part of this culture as well and then same with NIL.

“I think that is something that you have to embrace in college athletics right now and know how it fits into what you're doing,” Halcovage added.

Under Wright, Nova recruited so many mentally and physically tough guards from North Jersey, New York City and Washington D.C..

“Yeah, absolutely, I think I always would love tough guards,” Halcovage said with an approving laugh when asked if he would continue Nova’s recruiting formula. “I don't think anybody in the country doesn't want tough guards.

“I think what we're going to want to do is just really get the best basketball players we can get and, and then be able to put a team together that competes on both ends of the floor,” Halcovage continued. “And, yeah, there's obviously a great pedigree of basketball coming from all those areas.”

“But there's guys everywhere now and we still want to do great in the areas such as the Metro Atlantic up through the D.C. and down through the DMV and throughout the northeast corridor, but we're going to also, look for fits for our program from anywhere,” Halcovage said. “And I think in general, recruiting has become more national, but obviously we still love those tough guards.”

In Philadelphia, the birthplace of tough guard play of course, there is the Big 5, which has been reshaped to include Drexel going forward, but Buffalo has its own city series history with its Big Four – Niagara, Canisius, St. Bonaventure and Buffalo.

“There's definitely great tradition up here for basketball,” Halcovage said. “This area in western New York loves their basketball.”

And since the Braves, an NBA expansion franchise in 1970 that had Philly legend Jack Ramsay as head coach from 1972-1976,  moved out of town in 1978 to San Diego and became the Clippers (now the Los Angeles Clippers) there is no pro basketball anymore.

“The city of Buffalo is a great sports town, but there's no NBA team,” Halcovage said. “So we're excited for the opportunity to really have everybody come out and be able to be excited to watch UB Bulls in action this year.”

 Halcovage has hired former Bulls’ all-league player Calvin Cage, Hamlet Tibbs, Jack Fitzpatrick and Tim Saunders for his initial staff. Saunders, a former Wildcats player, was the Villanova' video coordinator last season.

"In my six years knowing Tim Saunders as a player and young coach at Villanova, he showed a great enthusiasm and knowledge for the game," Halcovage said.

The same could have been said about Halcovage when he was a young assistant on Wright’s staff that went to the Final Four in 2009.

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