I went to open practices in Pittsburgh before the first round of the NCAA Tournament. I feel like open practices are past their time at this point – it’s a Wednesday afternoon, there’s not a lot of interest in them, and it screws up the regular routine of the teams getting ready for the biggest game of the year. Generally, you don’t see much that even interests you.
But Villanova’s practice in Pittsburgh was very interesting to me. As soon as they came out on the floor, it was loud. The players were constantly talking to one another – and I mean the entire time. They were cheering for each other in basic drills and on shots like a Little League team. To be honest, it seemed a little contrived, because I was like there’s no way they could keep doing it. Every shot that went up, guys were pulling for each other. On every pass – every single one – the passer called out the name of the teammate they were throwing the ball to. There was a constant chatter, and it was all the players.
Every now and then an assistant would call out a new drill, and the kids would switch what they were doing. Jay Wright spent most of the time doing interviews with the TV crew on the side, with the team going through their workout behind them. It was simple stuff – dummy offense, shooting drills, free throws. But it was how they went about it that was so interesting.
Every time they threw a pass to one another throughout the workout, they always threw a 2-handed bounce pass. No matter what. Shooting drills, running offense, it didn’t matter. 2-handed bounce pass. And every time they got a rebound or picked up a loose ball – every time – they grabbed it on a 2-foot jump stop, and then pivoted twice before they passed the ball. Every single time. If a ball bounced away, somebody ran it down, jump-stopped, pivoted, and then threw a bounce pass. They were so technical and so fundamental it was scary, almost cult-like.
It’s easy to say that’s the way you should do it, that you focus on the fundamentals and you demand it out of your kids. But it’s not that easy. As a coach, it has to really fit your personality. Are you going to stop your kids at the beginning of the year every time they don’t jump-stop? Are you going to make them do it over when they don’t call out their teammates name in a shooting drill? That can wear your kids down, not to mention your staff. But for Villanova it was the real deal. You could tell it was part of the ethos of their program. The combination of the players buying in and the coaches being committed to it was impressive.
Perhaps the most amazing thing was when they broke up to shoot free throws. Everything was a game situation. So one player is shooting free throws, the two guards are split at the top of the key, and the two forwards are in the paint, right where they would be lined up in a game. On every release, the two forwards have their hands up and take a big step into the paint, mimicking that they are stepping around a defender. If the shot goes in, the four guys give dap to the shooter. If the ball doesn’t go in, the two forwards go up to get the rebound and tap it back out to the 3-point line. When one of the guards gets it, all 5 guys spring out to their offensive spots on the perimeter, and they run offense until they score. They do this every time they miss a free throw. After they score, they go back and shoot free throw again.
I’d love to know the process that went into getting to this point. There have to be guys along the way who challenge the structure and the discipline on every single pass, every single free throw. At this point, I’m sure a lot of their culture takes care of itself. They looked like a machine that takes every single step they take seriously. But I’m sure it wasn’t always that way. I’m sure there were challenges in getting to this point.
It’s not for everyone. Your culture, your approach, your team has to fit your personality as a head coach. I watched it wondering if I was disciplined enough to try and demand that level of attention to detail out of our guys. But for Villanova, it’s clearly not a front. They wear it with pride. It’s part of the soul of the program.
Is that why they win? Or is that a product of winning? That’s an interesting conversation. But when you watch Villanova for 40 minutes in an open practice you see exactly who they are, and there is no doubt about there identity. It’s a disciplined, committed culture that the players own and execute.