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2022-23 Big East Men’s Basketball Summer Check-In: Villanova Wildcats

Are the Wildcats the biggest wildcard in the conference now that Jay Wright has retired?

Michigan v Villanova
How long into the season is it going to be before Justin Moore is 100% for the Wildcats?
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Team: Villanova Wildcats

2021-22 Record: 30-8, 16-4 Big East

2021-22 Big East Finish: Second, two games ahead of Providence in the win column, but one behind them in the loss column and thus behind them by way of winning percentage even though the Wildcats swept the season series with the Friars with both games coming after Valentine’s Day.

Final 2021-22 Ranking: #10

Postseason? You betcha. The Wildcats beat St. John’s, Connecticut, and Creighton to grab their fifth Big East tournament title since The Reformation, and then smothered Delaware, Ohio State, Michigan, and Houston to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2018 and the fourth time under the direction of head coach Jay Wright. They got clattered by eventual national champion Kansas as the Jayhawks went up 10-0 out of the gate and pretty much didn’t have to worry about anything again.

Key Departures: Depending on your frame of reference, Villanova either loses two or four notable players from last year’s roster. The two that are definitive losses are Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels. Gillespie won back-to-back Big East Player of the Year trophies to close out his college career and led Villanova in both points (15.6/game) and assists (3.2/game) in his final season on the Main Line. Samuels started in 37 of VU’s 38 games last year, rounding off a third straight season as a starter for the Wildcats. He chipped in 11.1 points and 1.4 assists per game along with a team high 6.5 rebounds per game.

Before I go any further here, I want to make this part incredibly clear: Villanova effectively only played six guys last year. Gillespie and Samuels were a full one-third of the part of the roster that averaged more than 10 minutes per game while appearing in at least 25 games. Relative to the idea of “what does this team return that we remember from last year,” you have to take into account how much the six core rotation guys contributed and realize how much of a loss that Gillespie and Samuels actually are.

The other two notable losses are notable by way of their names more than their contributions to last year’s team. I feel they’re worth mentioning in context to the entire picture of what’s going on with the Wildcats. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree should probably be on this year’s roster after missing all of 2020-21 with a leg injury that required surgery in December. He wasn’t going to play last year at all, but he gave it a go, but ultimately couldn’t continue to contribute that that was that for his collegiate career. If he had ever been able to regain his forward momentum from 2018-19 when he averaged 5.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 21 minutes a night, he could have made a big impact, but that never quite came together for him since then. Injuries are also why Bryan Antoine never made a big impact for Villanova. The former top 25 prospect played in 46 games across three seasons for the Wildcats, but a pair of shoulder injuries hampered his first two years and a knee injury prevented him from playing in back-to-back games this past season until after the new year started. He’s at Radford now, which means that Marquette will see him in their first game of the season, and I hope like hell that he’s able to go for the Highlanders.

And finally, we have to acknowledge the retirement of head coach Jay Wright. He wraps up his career as a Division 1 head coach with 21 seasons at Villanova after starting off with seven seasons at Hofstra. After Wright guided Hofstra to the NIT in his fifth season there, his teams missed the NCAA tournament in just four seasons, and not at all in his final decade at Villanova. Wright’s Wildcats were the standard bearers for the Big East since The Reformation, winning two national championships and seven regular season conference titles.

Key Returners: While the Wildcats lose their #1 and #3 scorers from last season, they do return the other four guys in that primary six man rotation. Justin Moore is their leading returning scorer from a year ago, ending up not that far behind Gillespie at 14.8 points per game to go with 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists a night, too. He’s presumably going to be able to play this season, but he did tear his Achilles at the very end of their Elite Eight game, and it’s reasonable to think that he’s not going to be 100% just seven months later when the 2022-23 season starts. Caleb Daniels was the #4 man on the scoring chart and the fourth guy to average at least 10 points at 10.3 an outing. You wouldn’t have guessed it because he was their starting center last season, but Eric Dixon was actually Villanova’s most dangerous three-point shooter. He had a team high 48.6% of his long range attempts go through the net, so you could almost say he was under-utilized since he took less than one three-pointer per game on average. Finally, Brandon Slater was arguably VU’s forgotten starter since Daniels was the one usually coming off the bench. Slater started all 38 games and averaged 8.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.1 steals per game and shot a perfectly competent 33.7% from behind the arc.

While I would lead towards Moore as the leading scorer this coming season, if you timetraveled from the future and told me that any of the four were the leader, I’d probably believe you. Part of that has to do with the seemingly interchangeable nature of how they played last year and part of that is I don’t know what to make of Villanova going forward.

I’m going to mention Chris Arcidiacono and Jordan Longino here even though they don’t fit into the arbitrary rules I usually set forth for this section. Neither guy averaged at least 10 minutes a game last year, which feels like a pretty good bar for “was a notable contributor, even if they didn’t put up points or rebounds or what have you.” However, Longino played in 26 games last season as a freshman, while Arcidiacono appeared in all but three games. I would lean towards Longino, a former top 50 prospect, having a bigger impact on the 2022-23 Wildcats than Arcidiacono, but hey, weirder things have happened.

Key Additions: I’m going to start this section by mentioning that Angelo Brizzi was a freshman a year ago but redshirted. I don’t know what that means for a guy who was #167 in 247 Sports’ Composite rankings, but it can’t be a bad thing for possible contributions this season.

Other than Brizzi, there are three other new faces that we can expect to make their debut this coming season, and all three are freshmen. Yep, that’s right, even with a coaching change in the mix, Villanova did not add any transfers in the offseason. Cam Whitmore (6’7, 232 pounds) is the guy most likely to step in and make an impact immediately. That’s the kind of thing that you expect from the #14 prospect in the country, and that’s where Whitmore is in the 247 Composite. Mark Armstrong (6’2”, 180 pounds) is the #55 prospect in the country, and at almost any other program in the country, I’d say that we could lock him into a notable rotation role at the very least this season. This is Villanova, though, so we can’t just presume that top 60 guys can roll out and chip in at least 12 minutes a night. The third freshman in 247’s #21 recruiting class is Brendan Hausen (6’4”, 205 pounds), and he’s worth mentioning here but my “mmmm, let’s wait and see” note for Armstrong goes double for Hausen. He comes in as the #113 ranked recruit in the country, which is very much “could be a guy, could be a redshirt, who can say?” territory at this level of college hoops.

Of course, I’m basing my thoughts on Armstrong and Hausen’s likelihood of playing on “this is Villanova we’re talking about here,” and we’re not talking about the Villanova that we’ve known for years and years. After all, the biggest and most key addition to the team is......

Head Coach: Kyle Neptune, entering his second season as a Division 1 head coach and first at Villanova. The 37 year old from Brooklyn was on staff at Villanova under Wright from 2013 through the end of the 2020-21 campaign, which means he was right there for both of the national championships, before he left to take the Fordham job. He guided the Rams to a 16-16 record before getting the call to come back to Nova to take his former boss’ job.

Outlook: Hell if I know.

If this were Jay Wright rolling out for his 22nd season patrolling the Wildcat sidelines, I’d say “yeah, whatever, they’re the favorite to win the league, it’s Jay Wright, we’ve all looked a lot stupider than presuming he’ll figure it out no matter what they lost from last year.” But it’s not Jay Wright in charge of this operation any more, it’s Kyle Neptune.

I’m not trying to be dismissive of Neptune here. He was a Wright assistant for eight years and helped recruit some of (a lot of?) the guys on the current roster because he was only at Fordham for one season. Neptune knows which side of the parking lot to use because the shade gets there earlier than anywhere else, he knows where all the good sandwich places in town are and which ones will be happy to see him again, and he knows all of the administrators that he’s going to have to work with more than ever. There are absolutely worse options to replace an all-time legend who is already installed in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Heck, you can even credit Neptune with being a pretty dang good head coach in his own right. If you’re saying “oh my god, Villanova just hired a guy who went 16-16 in his first season out from under Jay’s wings, what the hell is going on here,” well, you’re not paying attention. Going .500 is something Fordham hasn’t seen since 2016, Jeff Neubauer’s first season in charge. That was the last time that the Rams won eight games in Atlantic 10 play as well. Outside of that 17 win season by Neubauer, 16 wins is the most by a Fordham squad since 2007, when Dereck Whittenburg guided them to a 18-12 mark. That was also the last time that Fordham finished over .500 in A-10 action. When you step out of your car and promptly push a team to their second best season in a decade and a half, you miiiiight just be kind of good at this whole thing.

But, and I think this is obvious, Kyle Neptune is not Jay Wright.

The best case scenario here is “things are different because Neptune is in charge.” They have to be, it’s a different human being making the final calls. The reason why we can’t assign a value to where Villanova’s season is going to go is we don’t know what things are different and how different they will be. If you are approaching this season without a healthy dose of “well, we’ll see what Neptune actually does,” then you’re doing it wrong.

The fact of the matter is that Neptune is inheriting most of a Final Four team. Merely having three starters from a Final Four team and a fourth guy who effectively played starter’s minutes from said Final Four team is going to go a long way towards papering over several bumps in the road relative to the coaching transition. Neptune’s going to have to figure out who’s playing point guard for him, for example, because one does not merely replace Collin Gillespie on the floor even if you can actually replace his scoring somewhat easily. Even bad teams have guys who can score. But the kind of Big East Player of the Year leadership and playmaking that Gillespie brought to the table? Yeah, that’s going to take a minute to figure out, and Villanova’s schedule doesn’t exactly give the Wildcats a chance to breathe and do that.

Check this out:

  • November 18: at Michigan State
  • November 24/25/27: PK Invitational, which means Iowa State for sure, then either North Carolina or Portland, then one of either UConn, Oregon, Michigan State (yes, maybe again), or Alabama
  • December 3: Oklahoma
  • December 10: Boston College in Newark

Oh, and then they also have their usual four Big 5 non-conference games, including at Temple and at Saint Joseph’s. By that point, it’s December 21st, and oh, look, there’s St. John’s to start Big East play. And remember, they’re potentially doing all of this without Justin Moore, who is recovering from an Achilles tear suffered on March 26th.

Maybe this starts rough. Maybe it takes a minute for Neptune to get his feet under him. Maybe it starts rough but only in the win/loss column. Maybe Neptune is pretty good at this and Villanova’s sitting pretty by the time Big East action starts up.

My default setting on this is that regardless of what the record is, Villanova’s probably still an NCAA tournament team here. Is that a top four seed like the Wildcat faithful are used to seeing over the past decade or so? Maybe, maybe not. It can go in a lot of different directions, because swapping out a literal Hall of Fame head coach for literally anyone at all is going to cause some bumps. It has to, that’s the nature of change. But that probably doesn’t mean it leads to a bad basketball team, not this year, that’s for sure.