To compensate for a sudden lack of depth, Wright did something he rarely does: He added a graduate transfer, the former Albany guard Joe Cremo, who offered experience and scoring in the backcourt. And then he told Booth and Eric Paschall, two redshirt seniors, that he would expect more from them.
The rebuilt Wildcats have struggled at times. Villanova has lost nine games this season after losing only four all of last year. It opened the season with a 27-point home loss to Michigan in a game that was billed as a national championship rematch, and later endured two sets of back-to-back losses and a recent three-game losing streak.
Still, Booth and Paschall have steadied the ship; they are now the Wildcats’ leading scorers.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Wright said, adding: “They had a really difficult task in our program this year with a lot of new guys. Not just leading them but being patient with them and teaching them.”
Along with Booth and Paschall, Wright has had to rely heavily on the sophomore Collin Gillespie, who has seamlessly taken over the point guard duties once held by Brunson. “He’s a sophomore,” Wright said, “and we’re kind of treating him like a senior.”
Regardless of what happens this weekend or over the next few weeks, though, Villanova’s future looks bright. Wright, 57, is one of two active Division I men’s coaches eligible this year for the basketball hall of fame, and he is widely expected to get in. And new talent is already on the way: The lure of two recent national titles has helped Wright lock up perhaps the country’s best recruiting class for 2019.
Whether this Villanova team can match the success of its recent predecessors before those players arrive remains to be seen. A date against fourth-seeded Xavier was the next test, on Friday night. A victory then, and another in Saturday’s final, would have Wright and his team posing with a trophy while they await their N.C.A.A. seed on Sunday night.
What they do from there could have everyone talking about the N.C.A.A.’s forgotten favorites again.
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