As Jay Wright prepared to leave for Las Vegas to serve as an assistant coach on the U.S. men's Olympic team, he did so with a sense of stability that many other coaches throughout the nation lacked.
His Wildcats had lost just one player — forward Cole Swider (5.7 ppg) — to the transfer portal. All of Villanova's newcomers were freshmen. And the NCAA's ruling that allowed players to use an extra year of eligibility resulted in the return of team stalwarts Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels. Sure, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had left early for the NBA, but Nova would be returning eight rotation players and welcoming a solid crop of recruits to a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season. Talk about a great way to head into a trip to Vegas.
"This could definitely be the most depth we've had in a long time," Wright says. "Depth is determined by how much experience you have. Young guys can provide depth, but it's not valuable depth. We have a chance to have valuable depth."
The seasoned returnees will help Villanova play faster, press more and hit rivals with a variety of lineups. If everyone stays healthy, that will mean considerable prosperity in the Big East and beyond.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Jay Wright
2020-21 RECORD (BIG EAST): 18-7 (11-4)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Baylor 62-51 in the Sweet 16
F Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (15.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
F Cole Swider (5.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Robinson-Earl was the Wildcats' leading scorer and rebounder last season, so his departure is significant. Villanova's ultimate success could well depend on how some young big men step forward.
Last season, Samuels was a steady offensive performer who showed he could hit from the outside and set up teammates. He'll score more this year, while still providing plenty of hustle plays and leadership. Senior Brandon Slater is a fine defender and an efficient scorer whose intangibles are necessary for winning teams.
The Wildcats need 6'8", 260-pound sophomore Eric Dixon to be more of a consistent weapon inside this year. "We know he's going to get there," Wright says. If he does this season, he'll provide inside-out scoring. Freshman Trey Patterson enrolled a semester early and gained valuable experience at practice. He has the physical presence to compete, along with excellent skills. And freshman big man Nnanna Njoku is a strong rebounder with a good shooting touch.
Villanova has been known for its great guard play throughout Wright's tenure, and this year's backcourt crop is again outstanding. It begins with Gillespie, who would have probably left for the NBA had he not torn his MCL late in the season. He's a fine scorer, distributor and defender. Most of all, he's an elite leader.
Wright believes it's time for junior Justin Moore to be "a dominant guard in every aspect of the game." Moore carried the Wildcats during the NCAA Tournament last year and has huge potential. Caleb Daniels struggled with health issues last year, but Wright considers the senior a "bucket getter" who is an efficient shooter.
Expect more from Bryan Antoine this year after he averaged 2.3 points in 11.8 minutes per game last season. The junior is finally healthy and brings speed and quickness the team doesn't have elsewhere. Antoine is a good shooter and a strong defender.
When Gillespie went down last year, junior Chris Arcidiacono stepped in and had some solid moments. He should play with more confidence this year. Freshman wing Jordan Longino is a physical player who can also shoot.
"We could go nine or 10 deep this year for the first time in a long time," Wright says.
Villanova is the clear Big East favorite this season, and Wright's club harbors legitimate Final Four aspirations as the head coach seeks his third national title. The Wildcats have experience, depth, versatility and talent. They won't be flustered by any situation or opponent, and on some nights, they will look like the best team in the country — which they just might be.
The return of Gillespie and Samuels is huge, but there are several other players on the roster capable of making major contributions on any given night and throughout the season.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Elite Eight
Big East Prediction: 1