Why my team’s focus is values—not the score or outcome of the game – Jay Wright

At this point in the story, Villanova was in the middle of its championship 2016 season. The Wildcats were preparing to play Iowa, an experienced team with outstanding scorers, in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32—the round that had been Nova’s undoing in each of the previous two seasons. I was hopeful about how my team would handle the pressure, but wouldn’t know for sure until tipoff.

What is the worst thing that could happen if we lost? Could we handle it if we did?

We already knew we could because we had done it.

As a coach, you can usually sense the mood of the group, but you can never be certain. These were such good guys. They look you in the eye and nod their assent to what you have to say. Still, it’s impossible to know if they have fully internalized your message.

On Sunday morning, I was nervous too. I knew what was at stake and what was in store for us if we came up short. That anxiety, at least for me, was rooted in my desire to see our seniors—Ryan “Arch” Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, and our walk-ons, Henry Lowe, Patrick Farrell, and Kevin Rafferty—get past that stigma of not having advanced to the second weekend.

On the game’s first possession, Kris Jenkins, our junior forward, got a look at open three-pointer. It missed. After Iowa rebounded the ball, the Hawkeyes found Jarrod Uthoff, who came back to drain a three of his own.

The thousands of Villanova fans in the building must have been flashing back to Buffalo, where we lost in 2014, and Pittsburgh, where we’d been bounced last season. But then we got another taste of Arch’s impeccable sense of timing. Ryan scored our first points with a layup on the next possession. Daniel blocked the Hawkeyes’ next shot, and Arch buried a three at the other end.

I’m not sure anyone could have envisioned what came next. We found an offensive flow and the shots kept falling. As the clock ticked toward halftime, we held a 54-29 lead. With four seconds left, Kris fouled Uthoff. Uthoff then missed both free throws, the second of which led to the final Villanova possession of the half. Ryan quickly dribbled up the left side before letting fly a three-pointer. Uthoff blocked the shot and the clock ran out.

The Nova Nation was on its feet, cheering our twenty-five point lead in a truly phenomenal performance.

But I was angry about that final sequence.

One of our core values is that we ask our guys to just make the right play. We don’t want them to get hung up on being theatrical or overly creative. We ask them to keep things simple. It’s the basketball flip side of the encouragement we give them away from the court to be legit—to make the right choices for the right reasons.

Over the course of our four years with Arch, we had developed a unique trust. If I sensed that he was locked in offensively and in position to take the game over, I gave him the freedom to do so. Ryan never made a show of it. Instead, he would simply walk over to me on the sidelines and say, “I’m taking this s— over.”

Ryan never abused that trust, and his instincts for attacking in that situation had never been wrong.

Against Iowa, Arch was in that kind of zone. His aggressiveness was the perfect antidote to any hints of anxiety that may have lurked in the minds of our players.

On this final possession of the first half, Arch had the ball in his hands. There was a decision to make as he dribbled into the frontcourt. But in this case, he made the wrong play. He was so consumed by trying to drop a dagger into his opponent that he didn’t take notice of the fact that Josh was wide open.

I let him know about it as soon as he stepped off the court.

As always, Arch reacted perfectly. He took responsibility and told the team, “My bad.” That’s leadership.

One of the most important things we want our guys to learn is that we don’t expect them to be perfect. They just have to give their best effort and take responsibility for their actions. When one of your best players, a guy who everyone knows is a team leader, accepts that with humility, it sends a powerful signal to the rest of the group. Ryan Arch had made a lot of great plays in the first half. For him to accept that correction, without getting hung up on all the other positive things he’d done, is pure humility and pure commitment to team.

During the halftime break, we used that final sequence as an example of what we couldn’t afford to do going forward. Iowa was one of the most explosive offensive teams in the nation. If we got caught up in trying to stick daggers in them, they possessed enough firepower to rally.

We came out of the locker room eager to prove to one another that our concern wasn’t the score or the outcome, but being true to our values. Arch reiterated that message to the guys on the court right before play resumed.

It worked—and we went on to an 87-68 victory.

Excerpted from Attitude: Develop a Winning Mindset on and off the Court by Jay Wright.