Jay Wright has Villanova in its usual spots fitting for one of basketball's elite programs. The Wildcats are ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press' preseason poll and picked to finish second in the Big East conference.
It's the norm for the Wildcats since Wright molded them into a Big East power over the last 10 years.
Wright's biggest accomplishment may be where he was Villanova ranked No. 1 — no voting poll needed. Led by future NBA talent, a steady stream of success in a beast of a conference, and a coach who deftly mixes style and substance, the Wildcats are easily the most popular and prosperous basketball team at any level in Philadelphia.
"I don't know what it is, but people just love Villanova," Wildcats guard Corey Stokes said. "It's just a great feeling when everyone's behind you, when you win and lose."
Every fan loves a winner and the Wildcats have done plenty of it to build a fan base. They've won at least 22 games in each of the last six years, have a Big East title, been to six straight NCAA tournaments and have a trip to the Final Four under Wright. Stokes, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena give Villanova enough talent to make another deep tournament run.
The Wildcats try and put the sting of last season's miserable late-season collapse behind them when they open the season Nov. 12 against Bucknell. The Wildcats fell into a funk after a 20-1 start that was the best for a program that began play in 1920, and a No. 2 national ranking for only the third time in team history. They went 5-7 down the stretch, including an unexpected loss to Saint Mary's as the second seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was a sad end to the career of the great All-American guard Scottie Reynolds.
Wright always seemed more surprised at the sizzling start than the fizzle at the finish.
"I think last year we learned a lot from being in this position without earning it," he said. "I'll be real interested to see how we handle it this year."
The early exit hurt, but it didn't muzzle the enthusiasm locally for the Wildcats.
The 6,500-seat Pavilion is always jammed to the rafters and their handful of games in South Philadelphia draw in one game what the regular tenant, the Philadelphia 76ers, need at least two to match. The Sixers averaged 14,224 fans last season at the Wells Fargo Center while Villanova played to a near-capacity crowd average of 19,001 fans in its six dates in South Philly last year. That number is bumped to seven this season, eight if Tuesday night's exhibition is counted.
"The fans show us a lot of love here and it's great," Stokes said. "I'm from Jersey, but it's nothing like Philly fans. They're really into it. They're really intense."
And it's no longer just the Big East heavyweights booked as the opponent to draw a crowd — Delaware and St. John's are on the Wells Fargo Center schedule this year. The Wildcats boast of their "Nova Nation" and it looks more like a continent when dressed in blue at the WFC.
"When we play down here, it's alumnus, it's students who can't get in," Wright said. "But then there's a crowd of Philadelphia basketball people that's really cool. We love that."
The Wildcats are in demand — a heady feat for any team in a sports-rich city with a deep roster.
They're also no longer the team Philly loves to hate. Sure, Temple and Saint Joseph's fans won't be singing Villanova's fight song — or their praises — much this winter. But the bandwagon fans and lapsed Sixers fans have latched on to Villanova as a favorite team, erasing the stigma of when they liked to thumb their nose at the school because it plays in the ritzy suburban area known as the Main Line.
"We're the guys that aren't the city guys," Wright said. "If they root for us, we'll take it. We also have great respect for the city schools."
Temple, especially under former coach John Chaney, was long considered Philly's school. Chaney was the (raspy) voice of a program that made national headlines by winning big and for their Hall of Fame coach's often outrageous behavior.
These days, buying a ticket at Temple is as easy as simply showing up. The Owls have one of the most apathetic fan bases of any Top 25 program and routinely fall well short of selling out their newer, nicer arena just a few miles away in North Philadelphia. The Owls, though, are affected by playing in the Atlantic 10.
Wright, with his camera-ready smile and stylish suits, has helped fans embrace the team by accepting the Big 5. He considers himself both a guardian of the city school's modern history and historian of its nearly six-decade past.
By saluting the past, he's healed the divide and ugliness caused by the end of the Rollie Massimino era and Steve Lappas' rocky tenure. Wright has changed the image of Villanova into a true Big 5 school instead of a Big East school forced to play Big 5 games.
When Doug Collins was introduced this summer as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, he noted how the Wildcats and Owls have put pressure on the pros to become relevant and successful again.
"I want the Sixers to be the basketball team here that the people want to see," Collins said in May.
Collins may build a winner eventually, though it won't be this season.
For now, the only game in town comes stamped with a "V" on the jersey.
Source: AP News