The true sign of an elite national program in college basketball is when a team “reloads” instead of “rebuilds.” In the case of Jay Wright and the 2019-20 Villanova basketball team, that reload begins in earnest with a star-studded freshman class to join returning players ready to take on bigger roles and keep Pennsylvania Basketball.
A quick review of what Wright faced after cutting down the nets for the second time in three years after winning the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio: He lost four players to the NBA as underclassmen Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman along with senior Jalen Brunson went in the first 33 picks of the draft. Bridges, DiVincenzo and Spellman were all taken in the first round, leaving Wright with imbalanced recruiting classes and question marks for scoring and leadership.
What was pegged as a “down” season on the Main Line became a furthering of the status quo. Villanova won the Big East title outright and the conference tournament. The Wildcats advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they lost to a Purdue team with a superstar guard in Carsen Edwards. Yet even in defeat, the culture Wright has instilled remained intact as Phil Booth and Eric Paschall stepped into those positions of leadership while a new group of role players emerged led by Collin Gillespie and Saddiq Bey.
Wright is entering his 19th season at Villanova, having eclipsed Rollie Massimino as the winningest and most successful coach in school history with his two titles and three Final Four appearances. He has been to the NCAA Tournament 14 times in the last 15 seasons and won at least the first-round game in each of the last six years. He recruits at a national level but also under the radar of the Dukes and Kentuckys, meshing players with both talent and character that forge the Villanova identity.
That is what makes this season’s team exciting, especially with Las Vegas offering +2000 odds to win a third NCAA Tournament title in five years come April. Booth and Paschall have moved on, with the latter a second-round pick by the Golden State Warriors. Gillespie is the team’s leading returning scorer at 10.9 points per game, and Bey showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman in averaging 8.2 points and 5.1 rebounds.
There are also junior forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, and each member of that quartet started at least 16 games and averaged 20.5 minutes. Wright will put leadership duties on their shoulders as perhaps his most talented recruiting class ever arrives at Villanova.
It starts with guard Bryan Antoine and forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Both are consensus Top 25 freshmen in the country, with Antoine a potential one-and-done candidate, and both will be competing for starting from the first practice. Freshman guard Justin Moore, another Top 100 freshman, comes from perennial high school power DeMatha in Washington D.C., and forward Eric Dixon amassed over 2,000 points in his prep career. Rounding out what many consider a Top 5 freshman class nationally is a guard with a name familiar to the Villanova faithful in Chris Arcidiacono.
For the unfamiliar, he is the younger brother of former Wildcats point guard Ryan Arcidiacono – a four-year starter who assisted on the game-winning buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Kris Jenkins to win the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
The Big East will be more competitive than last season, but everyone is still gunning to take down the Wildcats. Villanova had enough character late in the season to shake off its first three-game losing streak since 2012-13 to win the regular-season and conference tournament titles. Winning begets winning, and Villanova looks poised to keep winning for years to come.