Can Kyle Neptune get Villanova back on the Wright track?

Can Kyle Neptune get Villanova back on the Wright track?

  17 Dec 2023

VILLANOVA, Pa. – The new block of cement, untouched by time or the elements, proudly proclaims in all capital letters the space between the Finneran Pavilion and the Davis Center as Wright Way. It is an homage to Jay Wright, the man who took Villanova to two national titles and four Final Fours and spearheaded the fundraising for both the arena renovations and construction of the practice facility.

Drop the “W,’’ and you have a different meaning. The Wright Way became synonymous with the Right Way, not just on the leafy Main Line campus but across the world of college basketball. “Villanova basketball,’’ originally a vacuous empty threat of a catchphrase for players schooled in the art of being unquotable, eventually morphed into something with real meaning. Villanova basketball became recognizable, and above all else, successful. Tough defense, guards who butted their way into the low post, sharp shooters, a team that rarely beat itself and a roster built methodically and systematically, sustained by players who firmly planted two sneakers in the college game. While the rest of the sport chronically reinvented itself, at first chasing one-and-done payoff before flipping for four-year stability, Wright remained committed to a system that initially worked for him and Villanova, but ultimately just worked.

In 21 years with the Wildcats, he won 520 games and lost just 197 before stunningly announcing his retirement in April 2022. On the same day Wright said goodbye, Villanova introduced his replacement, the school’s ability to keep the whole thing quiet only slightly less shocking than Wright’s actual retirement. Kyle Neptune had less head coaching experience than his predecessor (one year to Wright’s seven) but, like Wright, had cut his teeth on the Nova bench. Neptune began his coaching career in 2008 as Wright’s video coordinator. He was born into the family.

Though they took over the same job, they did not inherit the same position. Wright arrived to a team that hadn’t made it beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a decade and was 0 for its last two Marches. He had room to grow.

Wright’s Right Way already paved for him, Neptune was introduced 20 days after the Wildcats lost in the national semifinal. He only had room to fail.

Let’s start by taking off the rose-colored glasses. Wright’s tenure at Villanova was not a brilliant, seamless plan executed to near perfection. It was bumpy. Sold on a hot recruiting class in year one that failed to deliver anything more than three NIT bids, the fan base wanted him fired in year four; fell in love with him after a 2009 Final Four run; questioned his commitment when that devolved into a 13-19 finish in 2012; second-guessed his legitimacy when bloated regular-season records faded into three consecutive first-week NCAA Tournament exoduses; rejoiced after Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer beater in 2016; and finally, in 2018, held Wright up as the modern-era Dr. Naismith when the Wildcats buzz-sawed the competition en route to their second title in three seasons.

This is presented as evidence to the gentleman at the Wells Fargo Center who, as Villanova trailed UCLA 29-24 with 16 seconds left in the first half of a game it ultimately would win, screamed “FIRE NEPTUNE!’’ It also serves his compatriots who have caterwauled on social media, threatened to revoke donations or cease attending games until Villanova gives Neptune, 45 games into his career, a pink slip.

To be fair, the results have not been up to the Villanova standard: 17-17 in an injury-plagued first season and a confounding 7-4 mark to date in year two, a record that includes wins over North Carolina, UCLA and a title at the Battle 4 Atlantis, yet losses to Penn, St. Joe’s and Drexel. “We’ve had every single emotion and every single possible experience you can have as a team so far,’’ Neptune says. “Literally everything and anything. But no season has ever been like, ‘Oh well, you’ve won every game by 30 points and walked off and won the championship.’ At least not to my knowledge.

“As a coach, you expect the unexpected and I’m not surprised by anything. You could have a leprechaun walk through here right now, and I’be like, ‘Alright.’’

There is, however, barring a cataclysmic cultural implosion, scandal or leprechaun invasion, absolutely zero chance Villanova fires Neptune. Less than zero. The Athletic has spoken to people in and around college basketball, Philadelphia and Villanova, all of whom requested anonymity in order to speak freely. They all agree on one thing: Neptune isn’t going anywhere. Nor do they believe he should.

Just as then-athletic director Vince Nicastro never even toyed with firing Wright through the early bumps and the late March struggles, the sources confirm what should seem obvious: Firing Neptune is not even on the radar of current AD Mark Jackson. This is not Texas A&M football. This is, once again, Villanova basketball, and the term extends beyond the court itself; it is how the school and the athletic department does business. The last time Villaova fired a coach — not just a basketball coach, any coach — was in 2016, when it quietly opted to not renew the contract of baseball coach Joe Godri. Among coaches of the school’s most successful sports (men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s basketball, and football),Wright, 21 years in upon his retirement, was still the newbie.

Jay Wright (left) and Kyle Neptune, reuniting this month at the Wells Fargo Center, took over the same job — but found themselves in very different situations. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Have there been golden parachutes, or mutually agreed upon exoduses? Yes, but they’ve been handled graciously, sometimes to a fault. Consider: Even as the shine faded on Rollie Massimino’s 1985 glory and devolved into a combustible heap of misery, Massimino wrote his ticket out — to UNLV. Villanova did not shove him. Nine years later, the chair warmed under Steve Lappas while Wright, then the head coach at Hofstra, was wooed by Rutgers. Even though Villanova wanted desperately to bring their former assistant home, the school waited, giving Lappas the grace of finding his own exit strategy. Only once Lappas went to UMass did Villanova call Wright.

Whacking Neptune is more anathema to Villanova than not playing hard, smart and together. If anything, insiders are more worried about him beating himself up than the athletic department reading him the riot act. There is no escaping the standard he is meant to achieve. The entire lobby of the Finn is a museum to the Wildcats’ success, much of it earned under Wright. His staff is filled with Villanova grads or former assistants who have won at exceptionally high levels. Neptune is not married. He is not, those who know him say, a man with a ton of outside hobbies. “All he does is basketball,’’ says one person close to Neptune, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “You worry he’s not too consumed by it.’’

He does not seem to be, at least not publicly. He comes off as calm and fairly unflappable, if maybe a little bristly when questions arise about his team’s failures.

Asked if beating UCLA was a “must win,’’ Neptune said, “No. We look at every game as the biggest game of the year. Whatever that means to you guys, great. We play our next game, that’s our biggest game of the year.’’ On a scale of one to Jim Boeheim, it hardly registers, but definitely pointed.

Neptune parrots a lot of Wright’s truisms: About relying on defense and rebounding and living with missed shots; about not getting caught up in a record but rather worrying about progressing. He is not, however, the same person, which — unfairly — works against him. Wright entered a room like Elvis, but acted more like a Walmart greeter. Everyone wanted to meet Wright, and Wright made everyone feel like he’d known them his whole life. It was his personality, but also part of his job description. Wright needed to reinvigorate a fan base, engage the larger Philadelphia community and connect a disjointed basketball family, so he stumped, charmed, joked and glad handed.

Neptune has the fan base. They don’t want to be charmed; they want results.

To be clear, there is cause for complaint. Villanova has lost games it does not — and frankly, should not — lose. The last time the Wildcats lost to Penn, St. Joe’s and Drexel in one season is exactly never. In the first year of a reborn Big 5 tripleheader, Villanova finished dead last. This may not resonate outside of the city limits, but it clatters louder than a ringing Liberty Bell here. Villanova is not accustomed to being the Big 5 hoi polloi. Once blamed for ruining the City Series under Massimio’s tutelage, the Cats nearly dismantled it by dominating it; from 2013 to 2018, Villanova did not lose a single game to its Brotherly Love brethren.

Though a single-alarm-fire loss to Penn was erased with the Battle 4 Atlantis romp, the thumping at the hands of rival St. Joe’s on Villanova’s court reignited the blaze. And when Drexel scored the upset, there weren’t enough hoses to extinguish it. Especially after last year’s season ended with an NIT first-round loss to Liberty.

The reality is the Wildcats are probably not as good as the team that snipped Memphis and Carolina on back-to-back nights in Atlantis, nor as bad as the one that lost three in a row right after.

They remain very much a work in progress, which elsewhere is a permissible sin. But not when the Right Way is so clearly designed. Just where the Cats stand on the path to Wrightful salvation was evident nearly possession by possession against the Bruins. For every well-executed play — Eric Dixon, doubled in the post, passed out to Hakim Hart in the corner, who made the wise extra pass to Jordan Longino for an open three — there was a head scratcher. Given a chance to back down the comparatively diminutive Dylan Andrews, Dixon instead passed out and eventually jacked a 3. He missed, allowing for an Adem Bona run out and bucket.

In general, the offense feels more like a collection of parts than a well-oiled machine. Which it sort of is, and frankly may have to be for the foreseeable future. Wright bolted for a reason. “I look down at the roster, and I mean, how many of these guys committed to Villanova right out of high school?” UCLA coach Mick Cronin says. “It’s a different world. That’s probably why Jay is on TV now.’’ Wright grew players. Jalen Brunson would become the national player of the year by his junior season; as a freshman, he watched from the bench as senior Ryan Arcidiacono ran the offense in the final minutes of the 2016 championship game. Mikal Bridges, currently the 22nd best scorer in the NBA, redshirted.

Such stability will be rare with the transfer portal and NIL. The lure of opportunity elsewhere has never been stronger, and keeping players on campus also means keeping them happy. Neptune is currently running a 10-man rotation, which is sort of like running a two-quarterback system. It means you don’t really have a rotation. “There’s no continuity yet with the substitution pattern,’’ says one basketball expert, who has watched the Cats play several times.

The irony is, the portal theoretically should be right up Villanova’s alley. It makes a team instantaneously older. Villanova ranks 10th per KenPom with an average of 3.01 years of college hoops on the roster. But aside from Dixon and Justin Moore, only two players — Chris Arcidiacono and Jordan Longino — have seen any measurable playing time in each of the last three seasons. And Longino missed five weeks last year with a leg injury. “You’re trying to get quality kids and then fit them into your system,’’ one person familiar with the program says. “The kids they have, they’re all wonderful people, but Kyle has to figure out how to make them fit. That takes time.’’

Villanova brought in T.J. Bamba from Washington State, who was an effective scorer for the Cougars. Of the 12.6 shots he averaged there last season just 4.8 came from the arc; this season, he’s launching nearly as many 3s (4.0) and 2s (4.5). They, too, are not going in — 31 percent. He’s also not the prototypical Villanova guard, comfortable with his rear end in someone’s belly, backing down a defender in the low post.

Tyler Burton, a designated scorer from Richmond, has been more cold than hot (never sinking more than two from the arc in a game). Lance Ware, allegedly paid well to come from Kentucky, missed the summer with injury and can barely get on the floor. He’s averaging 11 minutes per game. Hakim Hart, who arrived from Maryland, has been shooting comparatively well (38 percent from the arc) but isn’t getting a whole lot of touches. He’s taking only 4.5 shots per game, compared to eight-plus for the Terps. “They took good players,’’ one longtime observer says. “But you do wonder if they thought about how they were going to use them.’’

It’s a fair criticism. Under Wright, the Wildcats’ offense ranked 21st or better in KenPom every year since 2012. Under Neptune, they were 39th and now, 35th. They rank near the bottom in Division I (second percentile) in 2-pointers attempted per game, which is not unusual. Wright lived by the “shoot ’em up and sleep in the streets” mentality, and Neptune seems similarly committed to the green light. “We’re going to take our shots and live with it,’’ he says. Except Wright’s last three teams, per CBB Analytics, ranked in the 65th, 87th and 84th percentiles in 3-point shooting. This year’s team is in the 40th, sinking at only 32 percent a game.

The one thing Villanova does still do, multiple opposing coaches say, is play hard. “One thing that doesn’t change with Villanova is their competitive fire, their toughness and their spirit,’’ says Cronin, who as the head coach at Cincinnati coached opposite Wright for seven seasons in the Big East. “They teach you lessons,’’ Cronin says. “You better come to play.’’

The great misconception about Villanova always has been that the Cats are an offense-first team, largely because they were so good at it. But Wright long ago made a trade with his players: Give me good defense and I’ll give you, if not a green light, at least a yellow, on offense. In his most successful seasons, the defense was nearly as good as the offense. From 2014 to 2018, the Wildcats won 29 or games or more in each season; the defense ranked 12th or better, per KenPom.

So when Neptune says he’s searching for a team that can win when it doesn’t shoot well, he’s not trying to deflect from the bad offense; he’s being honest. Which, in the search for something to build on, is what happened against UCLA. The avert-your-eyes first half shooting (8 of 31 from the floor, 4 of 19 from the arc) improved exponentially in the second, but still only landed on a team that shot 32 percent overall and 31 percent from the arc. The difference: The Wildcats outworked the Bruins on the glass, and converted 10 turnovers into 17 points. It was far from a work of art. It was, however, a thing of beauty to Neptune.

“That’s Villanova basketball,’’ he said. “Any good team, they’re not going to have every night when they shoot the ball great. In fact, there are going to be a lot where they shoot the ball terribly. But I never want to be a team that says, ‘Oh well. We just didn’t make shots.’ That’s never been us. We want to say, ‘Alright, we didn’t make shots, but we still got stops and found a way.’’’

Two days after his team lost to Drexel, Neptune was scheduled to meet with the media at 2 p.m. Practice didn’t end until close to 3.

If there was anything to read into the delay, Neptune wasn’t letting on. Asked what his practice purpose was for the day, he shrugged. “Just get better. Sports are a great mirror in life,’’ he said. “So much you can’t control, so whatever happens, the question is: What is your next best action? We had a tough go of it the last couple of games, so what’s our next best option? How can we get better today?’’

Outside, as Neptune met with the media, a bus idled waiting to take the Wildcats to the airport, where they’d leave that evening for Manhattan, Kansas and a game against Kansas State. The bus hugged the curb as best as it could, but the road is narrow, and passing cars had to navigate around to exit or enter.

Wright Way curves like an ess. It does not follow a straight line.

Neither, it turns out, does the Right Way.

(Top image: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Photos: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images; Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

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