Villanova freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (above) has been a bright spot during a down year for freshman nationally. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
VILLANOVA — Two years ago, college basketball had a freshman class with the likes of Marvin Bagley Jr., Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deandre Ayton.
Last season, it was Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Nassir Little and Jaxson Hayes.
This year? How about a top 10 that features one guy who quit his team, another who decided to go play pro ball in New Zealand and five players whose schools might not even make the NCAA tournament?
It’s been a down year for freshmen, no doubt, and in a Big East loaded with talented upperclassmen, perhaps that’s why Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has managed to fly under the radar.
But after yet another steady performance from the Villanova rookie — 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting with 11 rebounds in a 72-71 win for the No. 15 Wildcats against 18th-ranked Marquette Wednesday at Finneran Pavilion — it’s not crazy to think Robinson-Earl could be one of the country’s most important freshmen as the season turns for home.
“We were legitimately putting the ball in [Robinson-Earl’s] hands at the end of the game because he’s our best free-throw shooter,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Earlier in the year, the idea that you’d be giving a freshman a ball at the end of a game to shoot free throws [could seem crazy.] But we’re doing that now.”
Consider this: Through Wednesday’s game, Robinson-Earl is averaging 11.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Not only is that 4.7 more boards than the next closest Wildcat (Saddiq Bey), but there are just three players in the conference averaging better numbers — Georgetown senior Omer Yurtseven, DePaul junior Paul Reed and Xavier senior Tyrique Jones.
The only other player in Villanova history to put up a season like that is Michael Bradley, who averaged 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds during the 2000-01 season.
Maybe this impressive season has been overshadowed by the fact that Robinson-Earl is only the Wildcats’ third-leading scorer.
Both Bey and Archbishop Wood alum Collin Gillespie are averaging better than 15 points a game and can really stroke it from distance. Plus, thanks to a balanced Villanova offense, Robinson-Earl has scored more than 14 points in a game just twice since November.
But there’s almost certainly more to it than that.
With more parity across the Big East — it’s likely that six of 10 teams will qualify for the NCAA tournament — not to mention veteran stars like Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, Butler’s Kamar Baldwin and Marquette’s Markus Howard — who became the conference’s all-time leading scorer on the final possession of Wednesday’s game — it’s easy to lose Robinson-Earl’s season in the crowd.
“One through 10, anyone in this conference can beat the No. 1 team in the country,” Wright said. “We always respect older teams. Seton Hall had everyone returning, Marquette has [Sacar] Anim and Howard in the backcourt. … What an amazing idea having juniors and seniors in your program for three or four years and grow up.”
That’s probably part of it, too. Robinson-Earl, like the rest of Villanova’s young standouts in Bey, Justin Moore and Cole Swider, really haven’t had their chance on the national stage — either they were in high school last year or part of a team that failed to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But with a three-game losing skid in the rearview mirror, there’s a sense that the Wildcats could really start to turn on the jets. They probably should win their next four Big East games, setting up a clash with Seton Hall during the regular season’s final week.
And if Villanova gets churning, a talented team that goes eight deep isn’t one that anybody will be hoping to see come March.