Paul Guenther and Jay Wright go back more than a few years. Paul Guenther and his old friend from the neighborhood, Jay Wright, have defense in common.
They learned it from their dads, who grew up playing ball in the Burholme section of North Philadelphia. When they ended up together with their families on the Philly outskirts in Richboro, coaching their kids, the kids were hooked playing games like half ball in the backyard in events to this day Guenther calls "Bloodbaths."
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And that was even before Guenther grew up to coordinate defenses in the AFC North for Cincinnati and Wright grew up to coach Philly's own Villanova Wildcats into this weekend's Final Four after scratching through the Big East.
"I'm his No. 1 cheerleader," Guenther says at his desk Thursday. "I was on the road for last week. But I won't miss this one."
"This one," is, of course, Saturday's national semifinal in Houston against Oklahoma. Guenther is going to be where he was a few weeks ago when Xavier stunned then No. 1 Villanova in Cincinnati.
Behind the Nova bench.
"My favorite part is the night before going to the team meeting," Guenther says of those Villanova trips to Cincy. "Jay is really good. He'll go through the scouting report, going over the sets, talking about tendencies, and then the next night behind the bench you see the game plan unfold and during the game he's adjusting, talking to his guys. A lot of it is what I do."
Ever since he can remember, Guenther has been watching Wright. His friend is 54, 10 years older, but they might as well have been twins. Their fathers played ball growing up. Their mothers were best friends as kids. Their fathers coached their teams in football, basketball, and baseball. They went to the same high school, Council Rock North. They lived a layup and screen pass away from each other. Jay was short for Jerry, his dad's name. Guenther's nickname was and is Paulie and his dad was Paul, too.
"Christmas Eve was a big day because that's Jay's birthday," Guenther says. "Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. Weekends. It's family."
When Wright started coaching as an assistant at the University of Rochester, Paul was in high school and started following his career. Suddenly, in 2000, Guenther was the youngest head football coach in the country at Ursinus College and he was going to Hofstra to watch Wright in his first stint as a head coach lead the Long Island school to its first conference title.
Wright's run at Villanova that began 2001 has almost mirrored Guenther's rise through the NFL ranks and they've picked each other's brains clean all the way through. Especially in the offseason when, naturally, they've got homes on the Jersey Shore a 1-3-1 zone defense away from each other.
"We talk about everything. Fundamentals. Technique. Motivation. The core of coaching," Guenther says. "He knows about as much football as I know basketball. Defense is their staple. That's how our dads taught it. The fundamentals."
Guenther says basketball defense isn't all that much different than football defense. At least not conceptually.
"You've got zones, you've got man-to-man," Gunther says. "When they double somebody, they know where there help is, where the tendencies are."
Guenther remembers Wright telling one of his players once, "Take the shot. If it's there, take it. I don't mind if you take it and its there. But everyone has to understand we have to get the rebound."
Guenther thought that sounded a bit familiar. At that moment, he felt it crystalized their philosophies.
"It's a player's game," says Guenther, sounding almost like the kid from Philly who played ball all day. "You take the shot, but everyone understands the consequences. These guys aren't robots out there. You want them to be able to react to what's in front of them. If you know it, you see it, go. It doesn't always have to be drawn up. But you have to be prepared to be able do that."
Guenther says when he sits behind the bench in Houston this weekend and he'll be there Monday night if Nova beats Oklahoma he'll be looking for some motivational bits for the upcoming spring meetings.
Until then, his scouting report is simple.
"If they shoot well, if they shoot like they've been shooting in the tournament, they'll win," Guenther says. "Because you know they'll play defense."