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2021-22 Big East Basketball Summer Check-In: Villanova Wildcats

If you’re not picking the Wildcats to win the league, you’re doing it just to be contrary.

Butler v Villanova Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Team: Villanova Wildcats

2020-21 Record: 18-7, 11-4 Big East

2020-21 Big East Finish: First place, three wins behind Creighton, but two losses ahead thanks to the weirdness of COVID cancellations.

Final 2020-21 KenPom Ranking: #12

Postseason? Yep, earned a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament after getting squeaked by Georgetown in their first game of the Big East tournament. They made it past #12 Winthrop and #13 North Texas (thanks to an upset of Purdue) before getting bounced by eventual national champion Baylor in the Sweet 16.

Key Departures: Two that are important to point out here. The first and biggest one is Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the 6’9” forward who led the Wildcats in points, rebounds, and minutes played last season. He elected to head to the NBA Draft following his sophomore season and was taken in the second round by Oklahoma City. The other is Cole Swider, who appeared in all 25 games last season, with two starts. His numbers weren’t earth shattering at 5.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.1 assists, but when you’re playing 19 minutes a night for Villanova, you’re an important part of the puzzle. For whatever reason, Swider elected to transfer to Syracuse for either one or two years of remaining eligibility depending on whether he uses his COVID bonus season.

Key Returners: Okay, so buckle up. Villanova has eight notable contributors returning from last season’s roster and another two guys that were on the team but didn’t contribute much and are still worth mentioning here.

Let’s start with the three guys who elected to return to Villanova for their bonus year of eligibility. That discussion has to start with Collin Gillespie, who is a question mark more so now than at any point of his college career. Gillespie averaged 14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, and a team high 4.6 assists per game and shot 38% from behind the arc last season.... but missed the final five games of the year with a torn MCL. He only missed one regular season game, though, which is how Gillespie still ended up an all-conference First Team honoree and in a three-way tie for Big East Player of the Year. The only thing that can stop him from being preseason POY this coming season is the question about whether or not his knee is okay.

The other two seniors who return for the extra year are Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Samuels started in all but one Nova game this past season, and averaged 12.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. Cosby-Roundtree is one of the two guys that are worth mentioning that didn’t have an impact on the team last season. He had zero on-court impact, in fact, as he had stress fracture surgery in January and ended up not playing a single second for the Wildcats. He appeared to be on track to becoming an integral part of the lineup through his first two seasons at Villanova, turning into a part-time starter in 2018-19, but his injury issues started the following year and hampered his playing ability. For his career, he’s averaging 3.3 points, and 3.5 rebounds in 105 appearances for the Wildcats, but we’ll have to wait and see if he’ll actually be available for VU this winter.

Villanova has a third double-digit scorer returning from last season that we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s Justin Moore. 12.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game is pretty great, although his 31% three-point shooting is not. Caleb Daniels rounds out the group of regular starters for Villanova last season, and he chipped in 9.6 points, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game in his first season on The Main Line after transferring from Tulane.

Brandon Slater is the only other rotation guy that played big minutes for Villanova, getting 17 minutes of burn while playing in every game. 3.8 points and 2.2 rebounds is perfectly fine for what VU was asking of him. Eric Dixon played in 21 of 25 games last season, but only averaged 8.2 minutes per game. That’s regular action, just not very much of it.

We wrap up with three guys who have question marks hanging over their heads for various reasons. Chris Arcidiacono got into 13 games this past season and started four times. However, eight of his appearances were of the walk-on type variety of minutes, and the other five were of the “oh crap, Gillespie is hurt, Chris, get out there and play” variety. Even that didn’t last, as he came off the bench for 25 minutes in the first game without Gillespie and started and played 34 in the next.... and then couldn’t break 15 even while starting in the NCAA tournament. If Gillespie is healthy, then that probably means no minutes for Lil Arch. Bryan Antoine played in 10 of Villanova’s final 11 games of the season after missing every game up to that point due to a shoulder injury. If he’s healthy, finally, then that’s probably a good sign for VU as well for the former top 20 prospect. Trey Patterson played in just two games last season, and hilariously, both were in the NCAA tournament. Patterson was a top 50 prospect in the Class of 2020, but the 6’8” New Jersey native wouldn’t be the first high level prospect that the Wildcats let simmer on the bench for a year before making the most of them.

Key Additions: In addition to bringing back most of a roster that was good enough to get to the Sweet 16 before losing to the eventual national champs without their starting point guard who was one of the three best players in the conference, Villanova also killed it on the recruiting trail this past year. 247 Sports ranks their three man 2021 recruiting class at #22 in the country. This is only good enough for #5 in the Big East, but we won’t hold that against them. Shooting guard Jordan Longino (6’5”, 195 pounds) is the best prospect in the group at #53 in the country. Center Nnanna Njoku (6’9”, 245 pounds) joins Longino in the “new Wildcats that were top 100 prospects” club at #96. We’ll mention Angelo Brizzi (6’3”, 170 pounds) even though the combo guard from Virginia is “only” #159 in the class and we usually pass over guys outside the top 150 when it comes to assessing potential key additions. Brizzi wouldn’t be the first underheralded Villanova prospect to turn into a major component right out of the gate (see also: Gillespie, Collin, #200 in 2017), so we’ll have to keep an eye on him.

Coach: Jay Wright, in his 21st season in charge at Villanova and his 28th overall as a Division 1 head coach. He has a record of 489-190 (225-114 Big East) with the Wildcats and 609-273 overall.

Outlook: Pick against Villanova at your own peril.

Yes, losing Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, one part of a three-way tie for Big East Player of the Year, to the NBA Draft after his sophomore season is not the best news on the planet for Villanova relative to going from last season to next season. Sure. Fine. We all agree on this.

That’s also Villanova’s only true loss. Yes, yes, Cole Swider did things that were neat and what have you, but look at those stats again a few paragraphs back. Every college team in the country has three guys every year that give you at least 6/3/1 every night. Marquette had four guys on the roster last year that did that and two more than I’m not counting that were only at 0.8 assists per game, and Marquette was a bad basketball team. It’s replacement level player stuff, and if Jay Wright can’t find someone on his roster to do that for him in 2021-22, he should probably be fired for cause.

So now you have a team where their biggest questions are “who replaces was JRE did for us” and “is Collin Gillespie actually healthy” and there’s a real possibility that the answer to the second one doesn’t matter if they answer the first one well enough. Yes, Villanova got clonked in the head by Georgetown in the Big East tournament while Jay Wright was still figuring out how the hell they were going to play without Gillespie. And then they easily cruised into the Sweet 16 without Gillespie.

Yes, I know what you’re saying right now. “Dude, they played a #12 and and #13 seed!” Yes. They did. And they beat those two teams easily just days after coughing up a lead to a team that ended up as a #12 seed after winning the Big East tournament. Villanova could very easily have lost to Winthrop and North Texas, just like they lost to Georgetown after leading by 11 with nine minutes to play and by five with 90 seconds left. Could have happened. Didn’t. They made two big second half runs to pull away from Winthrop in the first round, and then smoked North Texas with a 29-4 first half run to barely have to worry about that game the rest of the way.

And they did that without Gillespie, the guy who at least two, maybe three Big East coaches thought was more valuable to the team than Robinson-Earl was.

What if they only get 85% of Collin Gillespie back from his knee injury? That’s still 100% of the smarts that Gillespie plays with even if he’s not back to 100% physical health, and point guard smarts is almost more important to a basketball team, specifically a Jay Wright Villanova basketball team, than physical abilities are. Getting Gillespie back on the floor is going to go a long way towards answering the “how do we replace Robinson-Earl” question, because having a calm and veteran hand at the point is going to make everything go a little bit easier.

That gives whoever gets JRE’s starting spot a little bit more time to grow into the role. That allows everyone else a little bit more of a comfort level when it comes to playing their own role on the team and maybe growing a little bit as well. After all, whoever replaces JRE in the lineup isn’t going to automatically play as well as he did. Other guys — Justin Moore, Jermaine Samuels, etc. — are going to have to do a little bit more than they did before, but when you’re already running in a championship caliber mode, asking guys to give 5% extra isn’t exactly a big ask for the coaching staff.

Maybe the only thing that you really have to worry about if you’re a Wildcats fan is the defense. Villanova was fine on defense overall last season, ranking #66 in the country at the end of the year in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency metrics. When you have a top 10 offense, #66 will get you through most things, and there’s an argument to be made that Villanova’s COVID pauses ended up taking a bit of wind out of the sails of their defense just by way of conditioning. With that said, Villanova was a bad shooting defense team last season, ranking #216 in the country according to KenPom in effective field goal percentage, #215 in two-point shooting percentage, and #207 in three-point shooting percentage. Villanova ended up as the worst shooting defense in Big East play last year because they ranked ninth in both two- and three-point shooting defense.

When you have the best offense in the league, you can get away with this, especially when you’re still the third best overall defense. But what if VU takes a step backwards in offensive efficiency as they figure out how to play without Robinson-Earl? What if a slightly reduced Gillespie knocks them down a notch or two on offense? All those made shots on the defensive end can start to pile up in an uncomfortable way if you’re not playing like the Villanova Roving Death Sphere that we’re so accustomed to seeing on offense.

I have to bring up the defense thing because Jay Wright’s teams have taken a step back on that end since winning their second title in 2018. After five straight years of ranking in KenPom’s top 15 on defense, Villanova hasn’t cracked the top 30 in the past three seasons, and 2020’s #36 was miles and miles better than the #66 ranking last season or the #81 in 2019.

Again, if the offense can still go, this won’t be much of a problem for the Wildcats as they look to win another Big East regular season title…… but it will be a problem if they’re looking to make noise on the national level this season.