#11 Villanova 2019-20 Preview

-Matt Cox

Key Returners: Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Cole Swider
Key Losses:
Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Joe Cremo
Key Newcomers:
Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon


Outlook: Someone please check my math on this: 26 wins + an outright Big East title = a down year? Welcome to the big boy table Nova nation, because I’m here to tell you that in the school of ‘blue bloods’, that arithmetic checks out…

After a scintillating run to the NCAA Tournament’s winner circle back in 2018, the NBA draft stripped Jay Wright and his Wildcats to the bone. Only Eric Paschall and Phil Booth stuck around for the victory lap, both of whom deserve a round of applause for their Herculean efforts last season. Paschall and Booth clocked in the 2nd and 4th most minutes, respectively, in the Big East last year, all while shepherding along the flock of freshmen and sophomores in their early stages of maturation.

With those two decorated seniors graduating this offseason, this is the first time I can recall scratching my head as to who will carry the torch going forward. Since the Wildcats have now ascended into the elite perch of the college basketball hierarchy, there’s always been a predictable transfer of leadership and offensive production. First it was James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston in 2014, who were followed by Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu, who were ultimately usurped by the Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson wave. That last core trio was in the process of passing the baton to guys like Donte DiVencenzo and Omari Spellman, but no one could’ve anticipated their development would grow like weeds, which explains why they bolted for the NBA with their respective stock prices in the clouds.

The point of the history lesson above is simple: I’m struggling to pinpoint who’s ‘next up’ in the Villanova line of succession. The default choices appear to be Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, but that tandem doesn’t exactly give me the warm fuzzies inside. Gillespie and Samuels thrived in complementary roles last season, but neither looks ready to step into a featured playmaking role offensively. Gillespie had trouble getting separation from his defender at times last season, which forced Booth to wear both the ‘primary scorer’ and ‘primary creator’ hats. Gillespie is tailor-made to flourish as a secondary creator and spot scorer, but he needs to be paired with a dynamic driver to alleviate some of that pressure and defensive attention.

With the roster over indexed on wings and forwards, Wright will have to call upon one of two freshmen to fill this void. 5-star McDonald’s All-American Bryan Antoine is the crown jewel of this star-studded recruiting class, a 6’5 combo guard who comes to Philadelphia with a reputation as a refined scorer and shot-maker. He can fill it up from just about everywhere on the floor, and his scoring outbursts have become routine on the grassroots circuit.

Antoine underwent successful surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder (which he apparently played through for all last year in high school) in late May, and reportedly began rehabbing immediately after. Optimistic projections have him returning as early as October but more conservative estimates push that timeline back closer to the start of conference play. While hopefully his absence is merely temporary, this is a big gash to an already thin backcourt, and puts a ton on the shoulders of Gillespie until he returns.

If Antoine is the ‘flash and flair’ of the incoming prospects, top-50 4-star freshman Justin Moore is the ‘grit and grind’. From watching his performance at the Peach Jam in 2018, Moore is the epitome of a tough, hard-nosed winner who is great at nothing but really good at just about everything. He just plays with a different level of intensity, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, which should make him an instant fan favorite in the eyes of Nova nation. Moore hails from Dematha, MD and should have no problems adjusting to the college game with such a sturdy frame already intact (6’4 200 pounds), to go along with his extensive experience playing against elite competition in high-school.

That theme of physicality extends to the other two highly touted members of the nation’s 5th ranked recruiting class, per 247sports.com. 6’7 275 pound southpaw Eric Dixon will be the black sheep among Nova’s army of forward clones next year. Dixon is a bruiser on the block, blessed with soft hands and an even softer finishing touch around the rim, making him nearly impossible to body up one-on-one. A plus-4 wingspan should give him the length he needs to score over and around Big East size down low, which arms Jay Wright with a true low-post scoring threat he’s not had since Daniel Ochefu.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is the more notable of the two freshmen forwards, a McDonalds’ All-American who’s been a known commodity at all the high-profile grassroots showcases. What I love about both Dixon and Robinson-Earl is that neither can be classified as ‘long-term projects’ and their games should translate right away at the college level. Robinson-Earl is more fluid than Dixon, but displays a similarly high level of polish in his skillset.

Robinson-Earl doesn’t quite have the shooting range that Samuels or Saddiq Bey possess, but his lateral quickness, tight handle and sharp vision will make him an asset in Nova’s perimeter-oriented, position-less lineups on offense. That same versatility will come in handy on defense as well, given how freely Villanova switches screens across all five positions.

Competition for minutes up-front will be fierce, especially with an established upperclassman like Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree still in the mix, who is well-acclimated with Nova’s complex offensive system and is making a name for himself as a disruptive force on the backend of the defense. The roster depth and positional variance should give Wright limitless lineup combinations, as Robinson-Earl and Dixon both allow the Cats to sprinkle in some 4-out, 1-in looks offensively, in addition to Nova’s patented 5-out ‘lineup of doom’.

Bottom Line: Despite restocking the talent cupboard with a top-5 recruiting class, the backcourt depth gives me some pause. I’m as hyped as anyone to see Chris Arciadiacono, little brother of Ryan, suit up in a Wildcat uniform, but he’s not the immediate solution to the dearth of dynamic guard play I alluded to at the beginning of this preview. We saw what happened when Jahvon Quinerly flopped last year. Nova struggled to adapt their role definitions on the fly and while Booth was tremendous in his evolution into more of a dynamic playmaker, I’m less bullish on Gillespie being the permanent fix in that spot this season.

Ultimately, a lot will be riding on Antoine’s shoulders (when healthy), who must master Wright’s complex offensive system and broaden his game to more of a combo, co-lead guard mold, as opposed to a score-first 2-guard. If he can answer the bell, the Big East is Villanova’s to lose.