Listen Now: Jay Wright’s High-Tech Game Plan
Villanova men’s basketball team is number one, again. This week both AP and USA Today put this small Catholic University on the Philadelphia Main Line at the top of a competitive list of the best 25 NCAA basketball teams in the country. Their head coach, Jay Wright, is considered one of the finest in the country at turning his student athletes into winners. I wanted to find out how he does it.
So I visited Jay during a closed practice session in late October on the historic and beautiful Villanova campus. Jay invited me in part because I am good friends with his sister Donna, and because my entire family graduated from this 175 year old Augustinian institution. I told Jay if I applied today I could not make it academically or financially. He laughed and said he hears that all the time from visiting alumni.
What he also hears is the deafening sound of rabid fans cheering not only his victories but also his dress code. That’s right. He’s considered the best dressed coach in college basketball, an off court win he takes with good humor. “It puts a bit of pressure on me because they’ve had a web site that rates my suits each game, so as I’m dressing I think I better get my act together because they are going to rate this tonight and I’m going to be on social media.”
And social media is more than a passing concern for this coach in his 17th year at Villanova, molding youngsters to be the best they can be on and off the court. He is proud to say all his kids graduate, or if they go to the NBA early, come back to finish up. Picking up on that theme, I asked about a game a few years back when he benched a starter for a few minutes at the start of the game, and the media frenzy started with wild guesses as to why?
Jay said, “Let me tell you the back story. It used to be when a coach benched a player the response was ‘coaches decision’, or ‘a team matter’. We can no longer do that.” Jay explained that if he does not give a specific reason, social media fires up with wild speculation often not flattering to the player. To avoid that stigma, he’s told his players in today environment, telling the truth beats “fake news”. In the case mentioned the student player simply missed a class, not sexy enough for social media misfits to mischaracterize.
Given I cover technology as a national business reporter on CBS News Radio, and live near Silicon Valley; the impact of social media on all our lives is enormous. And also on the horizon is the impact of “Artificial Intelligence”. So I took a shot and asked Jay if there was any part of technology that helps him as a coach. Imagine my surprise when he said “…absolutely. Analytics is a big part of college basketball.” And he gave me some fascinating data points.
“Our scouting gets the information on how many times a team runs to the right side of the floor, the left side of the floor. How many times a guy goes right and pulls up or goes left and goes all the way to the rim.” Jay added that it gives him data to check his own team’s tendencies. But it depends on how you use that data to prepare for each game. How much do players trust each other? So it’s a balance. “You need to have the analytics but also need the culture to build on.”
And building that culture is the cornerstone of Jay Wrights approach to coaching, especially when these youngsters play on a national stage come NCAA tournament time. “For 3 weeks nationally you’re pretty well known and if you get your degree and you work hard you have that behind you, that can really create some opportunities for you in life. They want to be NBA players and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
That attitude was certainly evident at the end of the teams closed practice session. To my surprise, each team member came up to me, introduced himself, shook my hand, and thanked me for being there to watch practice. Jay summed up that team’s value system in his book “Attitude” about the championship season. “We want our guys on the basketball court to play hard and play together and play smart and with pride. But more importantly we want them to live with great enthusiasm, thinking about others and being a part of something bigger than themselves.”
The NCAA season is just starting and will no doubt be as exciting as ever. Win or lose on the court, it seems Villanova’s players can win in the game of life. By the way, that benched player, Daniel Ochefu, came back into the game, scored 19 points with 9 rebounds and helped his team win, “the Villanova way.”
(Brian Banmiller is a national Business reporter for CBS News Radio, writer and public speaker. The former television business news anchor in San Francisco is not “retired”, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
This article was originally published on December 20, 2017.
CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.