The college basketball world in general and the Big East conference in specific was shaken with an earthquake of a news report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania: Villanova head coach Jay Wright is retiring. That was confirmed by Villanova and Wright a little later on in the evening, along with the news that former Wright assistant coach and current Fordham head coach Kyle Neptune would be taking the reins of the Wildcats going forward.
There’s no way around this: This is a major loss for college basketball, as Wright had been a head coach in Division 1 since 1994, when he took the top job at Hofstra following stints as an assistant at Drexel, Villanova, and UNLV. He went 122-85 in seven seasons with Hofstra, guiding them to an NIT appearance and two NCAA tournaments in his final three seasons there. In 2001, he was hired to replace Steve Lappas at Villanova after Lappas resigned because he wouldn’t receive a contract extension. Things got worse for the Wildcats under Wright before they got better, but when they got better, they got really good. In 2005, Wright made the NCAA tournament for the first time with Villanova and guided them to their first Sweet 16 since 1988. One year later, they won a Big East regular season title and advanced to the Elite Eight, again for the first time since ‘88. Three seasons after that, Wright and Scottie Reynolds got the Wildcats past Pitt in the Elite Eight and went to the Final Four, Wright’s first appearance as a head coach, and VU’s first since 1985, the year they won the national championship.
Things got shaky for Wright after that, and as the Big East entered a new era of 10 teams after The Reformation, the Wildcats were something of a question mark. VU was a sub-.500 team overall in 2012 and bounced back to be a middle of the pack Big East squad in the final megaconference era season. The question marks quickly disappeared as Nova went 16-2 in Big East play in the first year of the 10 team configuration, and they would go on to win either a regular season or tournament title every single season after that. In 2016, Year #3 after The Reformation, Villanova beat North Carolina to win the program’s second national championship and Wright’s first, and just two years later, a win over Michigan in San Antonio moved Wright to rarefied air with two national championships as the top man.
The shorthand for figuring out the Big East since The Reformation in the summer of 2013, or at the very least since the start of Year #2 the following season, has been “It’s Villanova’s league, can anybody take it from them?” Generally speaking, no, no one has been able to do that. In 2017, Xavier won the regular season title, but Villanova was still a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament and that’s the year they beat Michigan for Jay’s second title. In 2020, Creighton and Seton Hall tied Villanova for the top spot in the conference, but the Wildcats were still projected to be a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, hardly a down season. In 2022, Providence took the league title by way of winning percentage, but Wright’s Wildcats swept the Friars in the regular season.
And now Kyle Neptune is in charge. Nothing against him, especially since he was a Villanova assistant from 2013 all the way up to the 2020-21 campaign before taking the Fordham job a year ago, but he’s not Jay Wright. Very few people can claim to be as successful as Wright, and after going 16-16 at Fordham with an 8-10 record in Atlantic 10 action, you can’t say that Neptune is guaranteed to be an immediate success on the Main Line.
That’s good news for Marquette, as there’s now a power vacuum in the Big East. With Wright’s retirement, things can be seen as up in the air in the league for the first time since the summer of 2014. Neptune is the fourth brand new head coach in the league this off-season, which adds a certain amount of tumult to the proceedings on its own. The door is open for another team — or maybe a collection of teams, who knows — to jump forward and sieze control of the league. With Shaka Smart beating Wright twice in their only season together in the Big East and the Golden Eagles jumping from mystery team to NCAA tournament qualifier in Smart’s first campaign, there’s at least reason to think that MU could be that program going forward over the next few years.
That’s the good news, but there’s a tiny bit of bad news attached to this as well. Wright’s Villanova teams have been incredibly successful, especially since The Reformation. If we’re being honest about it, the rest of the league has been able to dine out on the Wildcats’ success, both figuratively and literally. You know those NCAA tournament units you hear so much about? One payment from the NCAA to the league for every game a team appears in? Since The Reformation, Villanova has accrued 28 NCAA tournament units, or an average — average!! — of 3.5 per year.
The rest of the Big East combined? 55 units. Nine teams combining their efforts for six seasons and 10 teams for the last two couldn’t even double up what Jay Wright and the Wildcats have done in the same time. In the two years since Connecticut rejoined the conference? Eight units from the Wildcats, 13 units combined for the other 10 teams in the league.
Villanova, specifically because of the masterful job executed by their head coach, has been carrying this conference, financially speaking, over the past decade. With Wright stepping aside and the Big East’s television contract coming up for renewal following the 2024-25 season, it’s time for other teams, hopefully Marquette since we’re a Marquette blog but really anyone at all and preferably multiple teams, to step up and start doing some work to pick up the slack.