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'Work in progress' Villanova survives scare from Delaware State

11/14/2022, 11:15pm EST
By Owen McCue

Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)

For the first time since Feb. 25, 2019, the Villanova men’s basketball program entered a game without a number next to its name on Monday night.

The Wildcats came into the 2022-23 season ranked No. 16 in the AP Top 25 poll. That was mostly based on history and potential as Villanova began the season without All-American point guard Collin Gillespie and forward Jermaine Samuels gone for the first time in six years and last year’s leading scorer Justin Moore slated to be sidelined for a significant amount of time.

Hyped freshman Cameron Whitmore joined Moore on the injury list this preseason and suddenly there was a whole lot of unknown about the 2022-23 Wildcats. 

At this early season stage, they aren’t/weren’t a Top 25 team in the country. That’s why a loss to Temple last Friday was not so unexpected and a drop from the ranking warranted.

But trailing Delaware State at halftime like the Wildcats did later on Monday? That was not something anyone saw coming.

Freshman guard Mark Armstrong was one of the bright spots in Monday's win over Delaware State, sparking Villanova in the second half. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)

Villanova (2-1) figured things out enough to avoid disaster and walk away from Finneran Pavilion with a 60-50 win. Redshirt-junior forward Eric Dixon led the way with 17 points and seven boards, and graduate wing Brandon Slater added 15 points, five boards and three assists, going 12-for-12 from the line. 

However, it wasn’t quite the bounce back performance to quell any lingering concerns from Friday night, moreso highlighting that this group still has a lot to learn.

“We’re a work in progress like every other team right now in college basketball,” Villanova first-year coach Kyle Neptune said. “The ultimate goal is just to be the best team we can be by the end of the season.”

College basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy pegged Monday night’s matchup as about as lopsided as it can get — Villanova ranked No. 26 and Delaware State ranked No. 361 — giving the Wildcats a 99.9 percent win probability.

Delaware State (1-2) entered Monday night without a win over a Division I opponent since March 6, 2021. The Hornets’ only two victories during a 2-25 campaign in 2020-21 came against Cairn (Division III) and Regent University (NCCAA). They were just trounced 95-57 against Virginia Tech in their season opener last week.

The Hornets didn’t play over their heads but they scrapped enough offense together while Villanova was ice cold shooting the basketball. The result was a 27-24 lead for Delaware State at halftime and the Hornets leading for the first 26 minutes of game time.

Khryie Staten had 10 points for DSU and Brandon Stone added nine as seven of the eight Hornets to see the floor scored four-or-more points, including local products Ray Somerville (Shipley) and Aaron Lemon-Warren (Archbishop Ryan), who scored six and five points, respectively.

“This was a grind,” Neptune said. “This is what college basketball is. You come out and teams have game plans and they executed it, especially in the first half they made it really tough for us. They were playing extremely hard. They made shots. To our guys’ credit, we took their runs and just grinded and eventually by the end I thought we were playing where we needed to be playing.”

Freshman guard Mark Armstrong gave the Wildcats their first lead, 35-34, on a take to the basket with 14:02 to play. That lasted about 30 seconds before Somerville put the Hornets back up. 

Armstrong responded with a three at the 11:58 mark as part of a personal 7-0 run to put Villanova ahead and that lead seemed to take. The Wildcats led the rest of the contest, though Delaware State stayed tight.

“He’s an extremely talented player, and we have great confidence in him,” Neptune said of Armstrong. “He’s coming. He’s one of the most talented players that we’ve ever had here, just with his speed and his athleticism, what he can do causing havoc on the defensive end, so sky’s the limit for him.”

Sophomore guard Jordan Longino and graduate wing Caleb Daniels both struggled. Longino scored seven points on 2-of-7 shooting (0-for-5 from 3-point range) and Daniels had seven on 2-for-8 shooting.

Senior guard Chris Arcidiacono went 0-for-4 from three in 22 minutes and redshirt-freshman guard Angelo Brizzi missed his three 3-point attempts in 11 minutes. The Wildcats needed to look elsewhere for some scoring out of their backcourt.

Along with Armstrong, freshman Brendan Hausen was a spark. Hausen came in at the 15:44 mark and made his first shot immediately, then knocked down his next two attempts. He finished with seven points in 12 minutes.

“I was proud of the way he played,” Neptune said. “He didn’t get in last game, and to his credit, a lot of guys would sulk or blame other guys or feel sorry for himself, but he was just ready to play, so hats off to him.”

After the hot stretch, Hausen received an ovation from the crowd every time he re-entered the game.

“It goes back to playing for these guys,” Hausen said. “The crowd and everything was great, but I want to do everything for these guys and for these coaches and the guys who came before me. It was unreal.”

Any type of offensive explosion that may have made the final score resemble the expected result or put the game away early never came. The Wildcats didn’t score more than five consecutive points until Eric Dixon capped a 7-0 run with a three to put his team up 58-48 with 2:01 to play. 

Everything seemed to come hard offensively.

The Wildcats got some good looks from deep but missed their first 17 3-point attempts, finishing 5-for-27 from 3-point range after a 2-for-7 showing from deep against Temple on Friday night.

“The important piece is that I think our defense held,” Neptune said. “We were able to force them into some tough shots and hold us down while we weren’t making shots.”

“We love to grind things out,” DIxon said. “When you’re making shots it’s easy. When you come out and don’t hit shots you gotta come together, band together and I think we did a good job of that tonight.”

Neptune’s focus with this young group is progression, but a program that’s established itself as a blue blood in recent memory has a schedule resembling that. There is little time for figuring things out.

The Wildcats travel to Michigan State on Friday night then play three games in a loaded field at the PK Invitational in Portland next week, beginning with Iowa State on Nov. 24.

“We’re a really talented team,” Neptune said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can contribute and we’re a young team as well, so we’ve got a lot of guys having experiences for the first time. That means that they have a lot of room to grow.”

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