Tony Chennault was coming home anyway. After two years at Wake Forest, the Philadelphia native applied for a hardship transfer to Villanova, to take care of his ill mother.
And then his older brother was shot and killed back home in Philadelphia in May, and everything changed. Only now is Chennault showing signs of getting back to normal on the court.
“The transfer for Tony was going to be very seamless, because he was coming back home to Villanova and we knew him his whole career,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Until the tragedy with his brother’s death in the summer, and then it became a very difficult transfer because he was there, his mom was alone now, there was no one in the house with his mom.
“I think it really affected him all summer and through the beginning of the year. I think it really did. He might, within the last month or so, be coming out the other end.”
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The hardship waiver granted, Chennault did not have to sit out a year. He said his mother is getting better. But the loss of his brother, Michael Jay, 29, will be with him forever, his nickname “Jam” written on Chennault’s shoes.
As he prepares to resume old rivalries with North Carolina on Friday in the NCAA tournament, Chennault misses Wake Forest. He misses his former teammates, including his best friend from the team, Travis McKie. He misses the campus atmosphere. And he supports embattled basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik and his staff.
“It was hard, because I have a lot of good friends down there, even away from the basketball aspect,” Chennault said. “The college aspect was great. I left behind a lot of great people, but I still keep in contact with them. They’re all going to be watching tomorrow, cheering me on.”
Chennault seems a little uncomfortable talking about his personal circumstances, but he visibly brightens when asked about his two years in the ACC and the future of the Wake Forest program.
“When you have a young team, those are just like growing pains,” Chennault said. “I feel like they went through some of the similar experiences we went through last year. But I felt like they got a lot better. I think they’re headed the right direction. They’ve got a great coaching staff down there, so they’re going to push those guys to get better. I think Bzdelik’s a great coach. It just takes time. People want immediate results. It doesn’t work like that.”
Despite his ACC experience, there isn’t a ton of inside information Chennault can offer Villanova about the Tar Heels, not unless Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller all make surprise appearances Friday. These Tar Heels are a very different bunch than the group Chennault played against for two years.
A starter at point guard as sophomore at Wake Forest, Chennault has been the first guard off the bench for the Wildcats this season, averaging 3.6 points and 1.5 assists. They may need him more for North Carolina’s four-guard lineup.
“The last month or so, he’s been playing good basketball for us, made us a much better team,” Wright said. “He’s probably the guy I don’t talk about enough. He’s just that kind of guy, a blue-collar guy, a typical Philly guard who doesn’t want attention, just wants to do the dirty work and win.”
In that respect, Chennault is back home in more ways than one.