Matthew Ryan (@MatthewRyan247)
(Ed. Note: This piece is one of a series of six that the CoBL staff is putting together on how the 2020-21 season went for each of the City 6 and how the future’s shaping up. Links to the rest of the series will go here as they’re published: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph’s | Temple | Villanova)
Heading into the season, Jay Wright’s squad had championship aspirations which has been the norm at Villanova over the past decade or so. The Wildcats only lost one scholarship player from the year prior — Saddiq Bey who got drafted 19th overall by the Nets and immediately traded to the Pistons — a team that finished the season ranked No. 10.
Caleb Daniels, who spent the 2019-20 season sitting out because he transferred from Tulane, redshirt freshman Eric Dixon, and freshman Trey Patterson — who enrolled halfway through the year — were the three new faces on the floor for the ‘Cats in Wright’s 20th season as the head coach. ‘Nova brought back All-Big East Second Team member Collin Gillespie and two unanimous All-Big East Freshman team members Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl — the Big East Freshman of the year.
Season in Brief
Collin Gillespie (above, last season) was the undisputed leader for the Wildcats, but his season came to an abrupt end when he tore his MCL. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Coming into the year as the No. 3 ranked team in the nation, the expectations were high for the Wildcats. After suffering an early loss to Virginia Tech, the ‘Cats rattled off nine wins in a row, with a near month break during their win streak due to the program going on pause because of positive COVID-19 results from coaches and players.
After their near double-digit winning streak came to an end, ‘Nova failed to win three straight for the remainder of the season.
Against Creighton, the ‘Cats clinched their seventh Big East Regular season title in the last eight years, but it came at a cost; Gillespie went down with a season ending MCL tear which put a wrench in the Wildcats’ title hopes.
How it Ended
The loss of their star point guard Gillespie in their second to last game of the regular season was a huge blow, but the Wildcats stepped up without their leader come NCAA Tournament time.
Entering the tournament as a five-seed, Wright’s squad defeated one loss Winthrop in the first round, led by Robinson-Earl who had a 22 point double-double with 11 rebounds and also dishing out six dimes, and grabbing three steals.
No. 13 seed North Texas, who upset Purdue in the first round, was next up for the ‘Cats. ‘Nova dominated, outscoring the Mean Green by 20 points in the first half and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen with an 84-61 victory.
The ‘Cats tournament run ended at the hands of the eventual national champions Baylor. The Wildcats had the lead for the majority, but with less than ten minutes to go, the Bears took the lead and never looked back. Moore and Samuels were the only two players to eclipse eight points, as the Wildcats tied their worst scoring performance over the past two seasons, putting up just 51 points.
Most Valuable Player: Gillespie, a three year starter at ‘Nova, is the undisputed leader of Wright’s squad, and was the Wildcats second leading scorer (14.0 ppg) before his season came to an abrupt end, tearing his MCL in the second to last regular season game. The Archbishop Wood graduate was one of five players named as a finalist for the Bob Cousy award, given to the top point guard in the nation. Gillespie — the third leading assist man in the Big East, averaging 4.6 dimes a contest — along with Robinson-Earl and Sandro Mamukelashvili of Seton Hall were named Co-Big East Players of the Year.
While Gillespie got the edge, Robinson-Earl was a close second. The reigning Big East Freshman of the Year led the ‘Cats in points per game (15.7) and rebounds per game (8.5) while being unanimously named to the All-Big East First Team. The 6-9 sophomore registered seven double doubles on the year, all points and rebounds, and was a finalist for the Karl Malone award, given to the nation's best power forward. Robinson-Earl entered the 2021 NBA Draft and signed with an agent, solidifying what most people thought would happen prior to the year.
Most Improved: Starting every game in 2019-20, Samuels averaged 10.7 points per game, shooting 27.6% from deep and 72.7% from the free throw line. The 6-8 forward narrowly improved his scoring to 12.0 points per game, but saw a huge jump in his shooting percentages, making 37.1% of his three point tries and 82.8% of his free throws. Samuels’ marque game came against Georgetown where he set a new career high, scoring 32 points on 6/7 shooting from deep while grabbing six boards, dishing out five assists, and getting three steals.
Watch Out For: Former five star recruit Bryan Antione has had a tough two seasons on the Main Line, getting shoulder surgery on his right shoulder prior to his freshman year and reinjuring that shoulder before his sophomore year. The athletic guard played sparingly as an underclassman, but saw his role increase after Gillespie went down. In some increased playing time, Antione played solid, and with hopefully his first healthy offseason under his belt going into his junior year, he can show what he is capable of.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (above, last season) had a strong sophomore season and opted to enter the 2021 NBA draft. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Don’t Forget About: Although he averaged just 3.8 points per game for the ‘Cats, Brandon Slater played a big role in Villanova’s second unit, usually being the first or second man off the bench. Slater is a great defender and can knock down an open shot, shooting 41.7% from three. While his numbers won’t jump out at you, Slater plays his role and deserves some flowers.
Maybe Next Year: After redshirting in 2019-20, Dixon saw limited action in his freshman season, playing just 8.2 minutes per game. The big man averaged 3.0 points per game and 1.6 rebounds per game for the Big East Regular Season champs, but those numbers will almost certainly increase next year with Dixon likely seeing a bigger role that could potentially have him in the starting lineup.
27: On a six game win streak, the ‘Cats went 27 days without playing a game, due to the program going on pause twice because of positive COVID-19 results from players and coaches. Initially, Wright and another coach tested positive, and less than 48 hours after that pause ended, two players tested positive for the virus, triggering another stoppage of basketball activities.
9.1: As one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the nation, the Wildcat’s had the second fewest turnovers per game in the country at just 9.1. Gillespie played a huge part in his squad protecting the ball, only coughing it up 1.6 times per game.
8: In the second round game against North Texas, eight different Wildcats knocked down a three, tying a single game March Madness record. Eight is also the number of players who started at least once for the ‘Cats last season.
6: Losing to the eventual national champions has been a common theme for the ‘Cats in recent years, happening with six of the last 16 champs. Not to mention Villanova has won two tiles of their own in that stretch.
With the most packed transfer portal of all time, the ‘Cats were barely affected by it, not bringing anyone in and only losing one player, Cole Swider. Swider, entering his senior year still with two years of eligibility, averaged 5.7 points per game for the Wildcats last season as one of the team's best three-point snipers. The 6-9 floor spacer transferred to Syracuse where he will look for a bigger role from last season — he played 18.9 minutes per game as a junior — which he would not have seen had he stayed on the Main Line.
In a year with a lot of roster turnover for many programs, the Wildcats aren’t losing too many players with Swider and Robinson-Earl being the only two departing the Main Line.
The NCAA granted everyone that played last season an extra year of eligibility, and seniors Samuels and Gillespie took advantage, coming back for one final season as “super seniors.” Gillespie’s return solved their point guard issue which may present itself after this season, but could get a bit more clarity over the next year or so if junior Chris Arcidiacono or freshman Angelo Brizzi prove themselves worthy.
After bringing in no recruits last season, the ‘Cats have three incoming freshmen next year, two four-star recruits and one three-star. Patterson, originally in the class of 2021 from Rutgers Prep High School, enrolled at ‘Nova in January, allowing him to get acclimated with the program while still maintaining eligibility until 2025. This class will play a pivotal role in ‘Nova maintaining its spot as a national powerhouse.
There is one big question mark surrounding this highly touted roster; what will happen down low. Robinson-Earl was ‘Nova’s big man last year and with him gone, all signs point to Dixon getting big minutes. The only other “big” the Wildcats have on their roster is freshman Nanna Njoku, who will likely play a role similar to what Dixon played last season. There is the potential for Wright to play small ball, but we will have to wait and see what the Hall of Famer choses to do.