Jay Wright Talks March Madness And Says Which National Title Contender ‘Could Really Surprise People’

Jay Wright knows a thing or two about the highs and lows that come with this time of year. Between the various conference tournaments that are ongoing and the upcoming NCAA Tournament, the eyes of the sports world are on college basketball during the next few weeks. And over the last decade or so, Wright’s name has been synonymous with March Madness success, as he led the Villanova Wildcats to a pair of national championships and consistently won Big East regular season and tournament crowns.

Wright retired following the 2022 campaign, but he’s stayed around the game as a broadcaster. Whether he’s in the booth for CBS or on a studio show, Wright has been a natural, the sort of analyst that television executives would kill to have. It’s given him a chance to check out some of the best teams in America from up close, which is invaluable this time of year as he prepares to analyze a 68-team single elimination tournament.

Last week, Dime caught up with Wright via his partnership with Great Clips for its Wrights & Wrongs campaign to discuss the importance of matchups, his favorite team to watch, and much more.

What do you have going on with Great Clips?

We’re working together because Great Clips is such a great sponsor of March Madness. So, we’re doing this together, trying to teach people the right way to prepare for March Madness. The first thing I do is you got to go get a clean cut. So, I’ve got some nice cuts from Great Clips — hope it looks all alright on our show here. Lot of pressure on me, Bill, because you always gotta keep the hair right when you’re working for Great Clips now.

So, we’re trying to teach people the right way to prepare is get cleaned up for the Tournament, get a good cut at Great Clips. And then sign up for the Great Clips sweepstakes, which, you can go to your mobile app and you can sign on there to win two free tickets to next year’s Final Four, all expenses paid. You can go to the men’s Tournament or the women’s Tournament, your choice, but you can win that free by signing up on the mobile app that Great Clips has.

So, it’s fun. We’re saying, do the right thing, sign up on the mobile app, get a clean cut, be looking good, don’t do anything stupid like be upset when your team loses and cut bangs or at halftime think that it’d be good luck for your team and have your buddy shave your head or something. Don’t do anything stupid like that. Be clean and looking good going into the Tournament.

Obviously this is all happening around March Madness. And you got a long list to pick from, but I’m going to ask you, what’s your favorite game you ever coached in during this time of year that didn’t end with you winning the Big East or the NCAA Tournament? Just one that you look back on and go, “Oh man, what a game”?

That’s a great question, Bill, because usually, I want to pick the one where Scottie Reynolds hit the shot to send us to the Final Four the first time, or the Kris Jenkins shot. But you’re right, there are a lot of other games.

In the semifinals … it’s tough to pick one that you lose, but there are some that you played well. But in the semifinals in 2016, we played Oklahoma with Buddy Hield. We played them in Pearl Harbor, on Pearl Harbor Day, on national TV, and they beat us by 30 early in the year, and it was embarrassing [ed. note: Oklahoma won, 78-55]. And if I’m honest, we were scared to death going into that game, because they’ve already drilled us by 30. And now, we’re playing in the national semifinals.

And we played out of our minds — I really felt sorry for Oklahoma because they had no idea what the fear did to us. We wanted to beat them by 40 [ed. note, pt. 2: Villanova won, 95-51]. It was the craziest game, and they were looking at it like, hey, here’s the next game. They had no idea how juiced we were and how inspired we were from getting beat so bad early in the year.

Let’s talk about college basketball this year. Obviously, conference tournaments are just starting up, NCAA Tournament’s not long after. What’s your 10,000 foot view of the race for a national title this year?

It’s good we can talk about that, because March Madness is bigger than just the NCAA Tournament. We’re in March, it’s this time of year, these conference tournaments are crazy. And if you’re a mid-major — and I coached at Hofstra University on Long Island, we’re a mid-major — and you know, as a player or coach or even a fan, we’ve got one chance of going to the Tournament, and when you play at that school, maybe in your four or five years you have one chance to even get to that championship game to maybe play in the Tournament.

It’s so thrilling. I remember at Hofstra, the championship games were were bigger than the NCAA Tournament game, because it was so exciting. You kind of knew if you got to the Tournament, you’re gonna be like a 15 seed, or a 14 seed. You might have a chance to win. But it was such an honor to be in that tournament that these games that you watch these guys play right now are thrilling. Once you get to the Tournament, that’s a whole other level. The enormity of that is nothing you’ll ever experience in your careers, even if you play in the NBA. The NBA playoffs don’t envelop our entire country like the NCAA Tournament. There’s nothing like that in sports in our country.

So, when you look at the Tournament, and you look at last year’s Tournament, UConn ended up finding that gear that nobody else was able to find — I think they won every game by double digits, I think you guys in 2018, if I remember correctly, won every game by double digits. Do you think there’s a team in the country this year — UConn again, Houston, Purdue, etc. — that when they are at their best, they have a level that no one can reach? Or do you think it really is just all about styles make fights this year?

Wow, so, that’s a really good question. One of the things I hope I can share on CBS this year is even though we won games — every game by double figures — in 2018, when you’re in those games, like, we were down six, late in the game, to West Virginia in the second half. We wound up winning by, I think, 12 or 14, but it was a really close game. We played Texas Tech, it was a two or three possession game. By the end…

They start fouling, you hit free throws.

And UConn, UConn almost lost their first game to Iona. They were down at halftime. But they still were a dominant team, but it’s never as easy as the numbers look.

But matchups — to your point, Bill — I always think matchups are the key. I think Houston, Purdue, UConn have kind of separated themselves — there’s another group below them like Tennessee, North Carolina, Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky. But I think those three have separate themselves. However, having said that, because of styles of play, there are certain teams. If they get, let’s say a Washington State, for instance, who has big size, can slow you down, play in the halfcourt. If they get a team like Connecticut, they slow them down, they get them in the halfcourt, don’t let them get easy baskets, rebound, they could get them.

So, it’s matchups. However, I do think those three teams — Houston, Connecticut, Purdue — I think there’s a little separation there. If we could get one of those two against each other in a final? That’d be pretty amazing game.

And then going off of that, as someone who has a coach’s eye for things, who has been your favorite team to watch this year and why — the one rule is you’re not allowed to say Villanova.

[laughs] I can tell you, Villanova is not my favorite team, because it drives me crazy. I didn’t think about this, it’s so hard, it’s like watching your kids. Kyle Neptune’s like my little brother, the players are like my kids, I’m dying every game, so it’s no fun.

But I’ll tell you a team that a lot of people are not talking about that I think is ranked number six in the country right now: Iowa State. I did their game for CBS when they played Kansas and beat Kansas. And preparing for that game, I watched the film of their game where they beat Houston. So, they’re the top defensive team, and if you look at the analytics, they’re always like, one, two or three because it changes by the game. But to me, of the teams that I’ve watched, they’re the best defensive team I’ve watched, even better than Houston slightly, slightly.

They’ve got a point guard in Tamin Lipsey who can really run the show and could get it going. They’ve got guards that can really get it going. Keshon Gilbert can get it going. They could really surprise people, I love watching them play. And it’s crazy to say the number six team in the country and a team that might win the Big 12 could surprise people, but I don’t hear anybody talking about.

Yeah, when you hear the Big 12, everyone seems to go to Houston. Like, I didn’t realize that Iowa State is one game behind them in the conference right now.

Yeah, and you know, it’s interesting, you say about Houston, who I love. They have an injury to Joseph Tugler, who was a big part of what they do. He played like 20 minutes a game and he’s a great rim protector and rebounder. Houston has good guard depth, but now, they’ve only got two guys up front, two bigs up front that have really played. I think that’s going to affect them, I’m interested in them see them play in the Big 12 tournament without Joseph Tugler. I think it’s a bigger loss than people have talked about right now.

And then my last question: Does it upset you that it took this long for Kyle Lowry to come back to Philly, or are you just glad it finally happened?

You know what? There were … you’re right on. There were some opportunities that Sixers could have got him, and I always was rooting for that. And so was he quietly, although he did love the Miami Heat, he loved that culture, so he was very happy with that. But it’s so cool to have him back to Philly because he is Philly basketball. Started in the public league in Philly, transferred to the Catholic League, plays a Philadelphia brand of basketball. We’re so proud to have him back home and I know he’s loving it.