January 25, 2017

The Q&A ... with ESPN.com writer (and longtime Villanova observer) Dana O’Neil

ESPN.com senior writer Dana O’Neil was the perfect person to tell the story of Villanova’s national championship season. Before moving onto national coverage, O’Neil covered the early years of Jay Wright’s tenure on the Main Line for the Philadelphia Daily News. And after reading Long Shots: Jay Wright, Villanova, and College Basketball’s Most Unlikely Champion (which you can order on Amazon here), I can confirm that it’s a must-read for Villanova and college basketball fans in general.

I caught up with O’Neil to discuss her book, Wright, and the current Villanova team. Our discussion was edited for length.

PhillyVoice: At the end of the book, you said that you wrote the entire thing in LBI [Long Beach Island] all summer. That sounds terrible!

Dana O’Neil: I know, right? I’m lucky that my mother has a house at the Jersey Shore so we go the entire summer every summer. So it wasn’t like I was on vacation per se. But yeah, it was kind of brutal. I sort of set my laptop on my deck and watched people walk by. I got my beach time in, don’t get me wrong. But since we’re there all summer, I never felt like going to beach every day anyway.

It was kind of bad, though. I’ll admit it. It was pretty rough, but I had to get [the book] done. I wouldn’t recommend it.

You wrote a great piece about Jay Wright after the national championship. What interests me about him is that, no matter what, he still wants to keep a low profile. At one point in your story, he talked about the desire to go to a Phillies game or sit on the beach and have nobody bother him. Do you think he was able to do that this summer?

I think it definitely was harder for a couple of reasons. One, because people in a nice way want to congratulate you and say good things. And also I think he was pulled in a lot more directions, he had a lot more commitments and things to do.

But you know the one beautiful thing about Philadelphia is people move on to other things quickly. And Villanova is a big deal, but it’s not the Phillies, it’s not the Eagles. There’s a pecking order, and I think that allows him some anonymity.

He loves being able to fly under the radar in this market.

And years ago (2009), he was in conversation for the Kentucky job. And I was covering the team at the time. He told me, "I don’t want that, I don’t want that fishbowl." And that’s why he didn’t take the job. The idea of being the biggest guy in the state and all of that attention didn’t appeal to him.

When I talk to other people around city, alums of other Big 5 schools, Villanova probably gets the least love around here. Do you think that’s fair to say?

Absolutely. And I think it’s for a bunch of reasons. Number one, obviously you know the history of the whole breakup of the Big 5 and how Villanova and Rollie [Massimino] were blamed for all of that. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, they were.

Yep, they still are.

And location, location, location. They’re not in the city, they’re on the outskirts. St. Joe's, La Salle, they’re private schools and Penn is in the stinking Ivy League. But Villanova, because it’s out on the Main Line and because it was always sort of in a more national profile league in the Big East, it sort of seemed elitist. I don’t know if that’s fair, but that’s always been the opinion.

I think the city appreciates blue collar, and that’s part of the reason people loved Allen Iverson. And even though Villanova played blue collar, the image of the school and therefore the image of the program seemed a little too white collar for Philly folks, in my opinion anyway. I think Jay has helped to change that frankly, a little bit.

Rollie Massimino’s tenure after winning the national title wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. Jay was obviously part of that and still is very close with Rollie. Do you think he can take any lessons from that time and apply it to his current situation?

Yeah, he loves Rollie like a father because Rollie was really good to him. Rollie took good care of him, brought him to UNLV and recommended him for the Hofstra job.

And the Rollie thing went south for so many reasons, but I think that what Jay learned from him and his own experiences after '09 is you kind of got to keep your circle tight, keep your wits about you, and don’t really change too much. Don’t complicate it, I’ll give a better reason.

I think he’ll be really good at that honestly. I think this team this year is a reflection of everything he knows. Because to win that championship the way they did and to get these kids that came back to play the way they’re playing, I think speaks volumes to the steadiness of this program.

I was about to bring up this year’s team. They’ve obviously been very impressive, but I think the lack of depth with Phil Booth’s injury and Omari Spellman being ineligible as well the lack of a rim presence at the level of Daniel Ochefu are a bit concerning. What say you?

Every time I watch them play, I’m astounded at how well they’re playing considering everything they don’t have. They got two guys of the bench essentially. I think Darryl Reynolds is terrific, Mikal Bridges has been good and [Eric] Paschall’s great, but they’re not Daniel Ochefu. But then I also saw them win with Will Sheridan [as the only big guy].

That’s true. They've had success without much in frontcourt.

I’ve seen them win this sort of game before. I don’t worry about the rim presence as much because of the way Josh Hart plays. He plays bigger than he is, he plays hard.

The lack of depth is concerning. You get into a game when somebody gets into foul trouble or somebody isn’t scoring and you don’t have a lot of wiggle room. You can’t say they can’t do it, but I think that is the big question mark. I sit there and think to myself sometimes, “Imagine how good those guys would be if they had everybody.” Especially Spellman, just to have that presence inside would have been huge.

Again, you can order Dana’s terrific book on Amazon here.


Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann