Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rutgers @ #12 Villanova Preview (Fred Hill Edition)

To the Wildcat faithful-

With Rutgers coming to town, it seemed to be a good opportunity to look back at the early days of the Jay Wright regime at Villanova, and the role that Fred Hill was widely perceived to have played within it. (I say "widely perceived" because I don't know how much of it was perception and how much was accurate; it may have been a mixture of both.) I recognize that there are students and young alumni, of course, who do not remember the circumstances under which Fred Hill was an assistant here, and so perhaps this might be of particular interest to them...

Although this was coincidental, there was a Philadelphia Daily News article by Sam Donnellon in which Jay Wright was philosophical about his tenure at 'Nova. Pete over at Let's Go 'Nova had some thought-provoking commentary on the piece, and it dovetails very well with Hill's return to the Main Line as the head coach of a different Big East team.

Back in the early part of this decade, Jay Wright arrived at Villanova in the spring of 2001, to universal acclaim. One of the new assistants he brought with him was Fred Hill, who has very deep ties to the North Jersey/NYC sphere of influence within the basketball community.

The first Wright-recruited class was the nucleus of his first NCAA teams: Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser - the academic class of 2006.

(Footnote: the first Wright-recruited player was Chris Charles, who signed with Villanova shortly after Wright took over in the spring of 2001. The other player in that class was Marcus Austin, one of three players who had been signed by Wright's predecessor, Steve Lappas, in the fall of 2000. The other two players whom Lappas had signed, Brennan Martin and Kyle Wilson, decided to follow Lappas to Massachusetts; Austin decided to stay anyway and play for Wright.)

That having been said, the Fab Four, who arrived for the 2002-03 season, were the first all-Wright class. They did not all graduate collectively, because of Sumpter's knee injury, which led to him taking a redshirt year. At the time, the class was widely viewed as among the top three in the country. All four of them were from New York/North Jersey, and Hill was given a large share of the credit for their being signed by Villanova. However, Wright was certainly quite familiar with New York/North Jersey players. He had been the head coach at Hofstra, on Long Island, and we can't escape the central fact that Wright was the head coach and Hill the assistant.

In retrospect, the twists and turns (both literally and figuratively), of the trajectories of all of the players and coaches involved from that time, could not have been foreseen. To cite one example, Jason Fraser was a McDonald's All-American and widely believed to be the top post player, nationally, in that class. Unfortunately, a string of injuries never permitted him to blossom as a dominant post player.

As it turned out, the players from that class of 2006 did usher in a new golden age on the Main Line, as the stellar 2005 and 2006 teams excelled in the NCAA tournament. However, their freshman year was very difficult, with sky-high expectations. Wright's first team, in 2001-02, had surprised many by nearly reaching the NCAA tournament. All significant players from that team were returning, with the Fab Four being added. Unfortunately, the team never gelled and ended up missing the NCAA tournament completely. There was also the added indignity of a phone-access-code scandal marring the end of the season and forcing the Wildcats to compete with a skeleton team. (Ironically, that skeleton team nearly upset nationally ranked Pitt in the season finale, before heading into the NIT for the fourth consecutive year.) After the season, Hill was promoted from assistant coach to associate head coach.

Wright's third team, in 2003-04, also did not reach the NCAA tournament. These were all decent teams, it should be noted; they ended up with winning records against very difficult schedules (which is why they received NIT bids); they just hadn't gotten into the Dance. Fortunately, the team broke through in 2004-05, not only reaching the NCAA tournament but getting to the Sweet 16 before losing a heartbreaker to North Carolina, the eventual winner. (It was a great game, although still painful to recall.)

In 2005, the off-season brought some unexpected news - Fred Hill was leaving for Rutgers. The fact that Hill was leaving, per se, wasn't surprising. Ever since the Fab Four had arrived at Villanova in 2002, Hill had been widely rumored to be leaving to become a head coach elsewhere. What was surprising were these anomalous facts:

Hill was leaving Villanova, not to become the head coach at Rutgers, but the associate head coach (i.e., a lateral move). Rutgers also had a beleaguered head coach in Gary Waters. And it was at not only another Big East program, but one with whom Villanova would be battling for recruits geographically. And generally, it's unusual to ask a head coach to accept an outside assistant whom the school wants to groom to succeed him. But these were unusual circumstances. Rutgers had a VU grad as AD, Bob Mulcahy, and Hill's father was also the baseball coach at RU. And Waters wasn't really in a position to say no, unless Rutgers really improved quickly.

Unfortunately for Waters (although fortunately for Hill), Rutgers fired him at the end of the 2005-06 season. Subsequently, Hill was formally named head coach on March 27, 2006. (Waters ended up at Cleveland State - ironically, one of his predecessors was former VU coach Rollie Massimino.) This NY Times article - "It's Second-And-Long for Rutgers in the Hill Era" - from Hill's first season, is a good capsule.

This was the first time that Hill was serving as head coach, after a quarter-century odyssey as an assistant at a variety of programs. This NY Times article - "Sure He's a Good Coach, But Can He Recruit?" sums up the situation best, as a snapshot of the environment Hill was entering in Piscataway, NJ.

Anyhow, it's been four years now since Hill left VU - he's now been at Rutgers for three years as head coach, plus his grooming year as Waters' associate head coach.

So, hopefully some food for thought...

Thoughts are welcome...

Go Wildcats!

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