By Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)
It didn’t come with fireworks or heralded trumpets. In fact, it came quietly following a media timeout at the 14:18 mark of the first half with just a simple matter-of-fact announcement from Villanova public address announcer Jim Bachman.
And yet, it was a moment that the Villanova student section at Wells Fargo Center noticed. At that point around 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, Cam Whitmore officially arrived.
“I’ve been itching to go since I got hurt,” Whitmore said after missing seven weeks with a broken right thumb.
Villanova's Caleb Daniels scored 22 points in a win over Oklahoma on Saturday. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
And for a Villanova team that had stumbled with four straight losses and was facing an ignominious mark with a loss on Sunday, Whitmore’s seven point, three-rebound and three steal performance in 20 minutes off the Wildcats bench was a sight for sore eyes.
For the first time this season, Villanova looked slightly like the program that has become a national power – tightening up on defense and hitting some big shots down the stretch during a 70-66 win over Oklahoma Saturday afternoon before 17,079 in South Philly.
While Caleb Daniels was the leading scorer with 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting and Mark Armstrong scored some big buckets with 12 points in his first start, Whitmore – who was on a time limit of 20 minutes as part of his rehab process- was the story. The former McDonald's All-American from Maryland is projected to be a potential NBA Lottery pick. The injury — teamed along with one to guard Justin Moore — has put the first year of the post-Jay Wright era on a slow track at the start. The energy was noticeable on both ends of the floor.
“He hasn’t played basketball except for four or five days for seven weeks,” Wildcats head coach Kyle Neptune said. “He just did something that would make normal human beings feel discombobulated. To his credit, he gave us a big boost, especially defensively with his big body. To be honest, I was shocked.”
“He’s a very poised young man as a freshman,” Daniels said. “He’s willing to struggle and that’s unique among freshmen. That’s not something that a lot of freshmen are willing to have. I’m very proud of him.”
The defensive part was a big part of that story. When Whitmore came on the floor, Villanova was trailing 15-7 and the Sooners were getting wide open shots at every turn. Oklahoma was 6-for-10 from the floor. Eventually, the Wildcats did get a better defensive flow and forced the Sooners to go on a scoring drought of almost eight minutes.
“I first had some nerves coming into the game,” Whitmore said. “My brothers just helped me out and kept helping me.”
Whitmore was part of a smaller lineup that helped tightened the margin midway through the first half, allowing the 11-point Oklahoma lead to shrink to 32-30 at intermission. That’s when Daniels really took over, hitting five of six shots in the second half including a dagger 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 58 seconds left that allowed the Wildcats to have some breathing room at 67-63.
“I was just thinking about the shot clock at that point,” Daniels said. “We look to make the play and stay on the attack, honestly. That’s what we were trying to do there.”
With Whitmore back, Villanova can start to see what pieces fit together. A loss on Saturday would have dropped the Wildcats to 2-6 – the worst start since 1991-92, Rollie Massimino’s last year. Losses to Iowa State, Portland and Oregon last weekend during the Phil Knight Classic in Portland felt like a potential season crusher. But after a week to regroup and with Whitmore back, 3-5 and a looming schedule of Penn, Boston College and St. Joseph’s allows the Wildcats to regain some footing before the Big East schedule gets underway in three weeks.
“We’re still figuring it out,” Neptune said. “We have a unique team with a lot of young guys along with three wily veterans. It depends on teams and matchups. When you have a young team, the room for growth is much more. I expect to see some unique lineups as we go along. It’s going to be that kind of year.”