OMAHA, Neb. — Jay Wright didn’t ask a question, but the Villanova basketball coach went out of his way to call in and listen to Bill Self’s teleconference Monday afternoon.
He wanted to hear what his Kansas counterpart had to say, and he left with a lot to digest.
Scheduled to speak after Self in the teleconference of Final Four coaches, Wright phoned in early and listened to the Hall of Famer’s question-and-answer session ahead of the two teams’ clash at approximately 7:49 p.m. Saturday at Alamodome in San Antonio. He said he heard a number of interesting responses, but one that stood out was Self’s response when asked why he got so emotional in the aftermath of Sunday’s 85-81 overtime victory over Duke.
No stranger to NCAA Tournament heartbreak, Wright found himself relating to Self’s answers.
“I was listening to Bill, and I’m sure anyone that looks at Bill Self says, ‘Well, I don’t feel sorry for that guy. He’s one of the greatest coaches, he wins all the time.’ But I get it,” Wright said. “Like, only coaches can understand that, where what’s most impressive about what he’s done is consistency, 14 (consecutive) regular season league championships. That’s the mark of a great coach.
“What you do in the tournament is not really a mark, I don’t think, of your talent as a coach. It’s matchups. It’s who’s healthy. You know, it’s a break here or there. It’s a call by a referee. So in coaching, we understand you don’t have as much control of that tournament. You have control of your regular season a little bit more. But you’re going to be evaluated on what you do in the tournament.”
What Wright has done in the tournament is part of the story of what Self has done.
Wright’s Wildcats dealt the Perry Ellis-led Jayhawks a 64-59 defeat in the Elite Eight two years ago, the first of two straight losses in that round for KU before Sunday’s triumph.
“We all have to accept that, and I think Bill accepts it,” Wright continued. “I think that’s part of why he was excited to get to the Final Four. ... That’s what makes his fan base happy. It’s what makes our fan base happy, how far you get in the tournament. It’s one of the challenges of being a college basketball coach.”
That Villanova team, of course, went on to win the national championship. Wright’s overall record in the NCAA Tournament sits at 25-13 with three Final Four appearances and one national championship, while Self’s stands at 47-18 with three Final Fours, one national championship and one runner-up.
“If you get there (to the Final Four), you realize how hard it is,” Wright said. “When you don’t get there, you think it’s hard, but when you get there, you actually realize it’s even harder than you thought.”
On to Saturday’s matchup, one some are calling the de facto national championship game with No. 3-seeded Michigan and No. 11-seeded Loyola-Chicago on the other end of the bracket. Wright stopped short of calling that take poison, but he did express that he hoped his group was above such a thought.
The most appealing individual showdown will be contested by the teams’ standout point guards, with KU’s Devonte’ Graham and Villanova’s Jalen Brunson pacing each program. Graham, a 6-foot-2 senior averaging 17.2 points and 7.3 assists, and Brunson, a 6-3 junior averaging 19.2 points and 4.6 assists, are both Naismith Award finalists.
Brunson’s head-to-head battles with Alabama’s Collin Sexton, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter and Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans in each of the Wildcats’ previous three games has prepared him to elevate his play against Graham, Wright said.
“So now we’re getting to the Final Four, and we’re going to play arguably the best,” Wright said of Graham. “And Jalen, I think, has been smart about not getting into that confrontation individually, and it’s hard to do because a lot of people talk about it.
“If I was a fan, I would love to see this. As a coach, I hope we don’t get into that at all, and I don’t think Jalen will. It’ll be Villanova versus Kansas.”
Having defeated West Virginia and Texas Tech in Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, Villanova will look to make it three-for-three against Big 12 teams this tournament. Wright, though, knows KU will be a different challenge than the last two he overcame.
“It’s interesting to me that I heard (West Virginia coach) Bob Huggins say that we remind them of Kansas. I heard (Texas Tech coach) Chris Beard say we remind them of Kansas,” Wright said. “When I heard that, I always took that as a compliment, and now we’ve got to play against them, so now I’m not so excited about it.”