Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It was a year the Villanova men would like to forget.
While the women were having one of the best seasons in program history, Kyle Neptune’s first year saw his Wildcats end with a 17-17 record (10-10 Big East) after bowing out in the first round of the NIT, missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
Eric Dixon (15.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) had the best season of his career and Caleb Daniels (14.2 ppg) had a solid year, but they missed the services of a healthy Justin Moore, who averaged 13.5 ppg in 13 games after returning from an Achilles injury. Stud freshman Cam Whitmore averaged 12.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg, playing well in his first and only season on the Main Line, but didn’t quite have the impact that some were hoping from the five-star recruit.
We talked to Neptune earlier this month as part of our series of City 6 Q+As; here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
Villanova head coach Kyle Neptune watches his players warm up before a game this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CobL)
City Of Basketball Love: You’re through your first year as head coach of Villanova, obviously you were head coach at Fordham for a year before that, so it wasn’t your first time as head coach. But I’m curious now that you’ve had a few weeks to reflect on this season, what was this season like for you being back at Villanova but moving that seat up the bench?
Kyle Neptune: To be honest, I’m still kinda coming off of the season. (Laughs). My first thoughts for us, our goal is to always be the best team we can be by the end of the season; I thought we had a lot of bumps and challenges throughout our year, and I thought that our guys' commitment to our program stayed through the entire season, and that’s something we’re gonna take on to next year. That’s something I think we can positively take on to next year that our guys fought through some tough times, and got to, I thought, a really good point by the end. And that’s what we’ll take on to next year.
CoBL: Like you said, this year wasn’t up to the standard the program has set over the last decade, with the injuries and other things going on. What did you learn about what it takes to coach through some adversity, and what sort of messages did you find yourself developing over the course of the season?
KN: I think that winning at a high level has unique challenges most people never get to see, because you see the winning and think everything is great. But I think there is some unique positives to going through challenging times together as well. I thought our bunch of guys are coming back and been through some challenging times and again I’m really proud of the way they stuck together throughout those times and I think that’s going to be something we can draw from as we move forward.
CoBL: A big positive this season was the continued development of Eric Dixon. In the year that you weren’t with the program, and then coming back, where did you see him make that jump to enable him to have the year that he had?
KN: I think Eric is one of the (hardest) workers I’ve ever been around, and he’s always trying to add to his game, and I think his best days, as you can see this past year, I think the sky's the limit still to where he can end up. I think he can take another huge jump next year as well, so watching him from afar, last year, when I was gone, to see what he got to this year, I’m just really excited for where he can get to in another year of development.
CoBL: Justin Moore announced (March 31) that he was coming back for his last year. What were the conversations about, when you started to sense this being a possibility for him?
KN: Obviously, Justin had a tough 12 months, obviously being on a high, being on the cusp of a Final Four [to] getting injured, a really hard road to recovery, making a decision to come back, and then fighting through — not a lot of people know this, he was never really healthy throughout the year, I would say maybe 60% at most. He really gutted it out for his team, and then making the decision to come back, he went through a lot. So throughout the process, we tried to just let him make his own decisions, him and his family, and just support him in the best way we could. I’m really proud of him with all he’s been through here, he’s been extremely resilient, and he’s been a great Villanovan, and we’re just looking forward to his leadership moving forward.
CoBL: As you said, it’s literally only been 12 months and a couple weeks since that injury, which can take well over a year to fully recover from. Is that something you were bringing up to him as he was going through that process, in terms of taking an extra year to fully come back from his Achilles injury?
KN: No, we just try to get him as healthy as possible. The way we thought about it is just take it day by day, see where he was. Not try to make any decisions before he had to make the decision, and as he went, we really tried to lean on his decision making with obviously our doctors and his family, to do what was best for him in the moment. He’s given so much to Villanova, we didn’t want to place any undue pressure on him. We’re just thrilled to have him back.
CoBL: UConn just won the National Championship, what does it do for the conference when a program wins, and what were your thoughts on them as a championship team?
KN: I’m really proud of the Big East, you just see a team, the No. 4 team to come out of the Big East as a national champion, I think that says a lot about our league. You just watch coach [Dan] Hurley over the last couple of years and where he’s taken the program, he’s obviously done a phenomenal job, and [assistant coach] Kimani Young [has been] a big piece of that as well. I think they really deserve it, you see the non-conference [schedule] that they had, and having a little tough time for a second in the league but then recovering and doing really well towards the back end.
We played them the last game of the regular season, and you just saw that they’ve got something special. I’m really proud of their program and the Big East. I think this just proves that our league… I would put our league up against anyone. Year-in-year-out, you got five out of 11 teams to make it to the tournament, two advance to the Elite Eight — three in the Sweet Sixteen, two in the Elite Eight, that’s just a big-time situation, especially for an 11-team league, you’re talking about 20% of your league being in the Elite Eight, that’s saying a lot. So I think that what they did was just kind of carry the flag for our league, and we’re definitely proud of them
CoBL: Have you coached against [new St. John’s coach] Rick Pitino before?
KN: Not as head coach.
CoBL: Turning to next year — at the moment you have nine scholarship players on the roster, with one committed. The transfer portal is really big right now, where are you guys in terms of where you want the roster to be next year? (Note: Former Washington State guard T.J. Bamba announced his commitment to Villanova last week.)
KN: I think it’s just a day-by-day process, we’re recruiting. I think you’re never not recruiting, you’re always looking to better your team, so we’re just in that process and we’re taking it day-by-day.
CoBL: Jay Wright never really liked to go with 13 scholarships, moreso going with 11 or 12 scholarship players and then a few walk-ons to round it out, is that a philosophy you share, given all the injuries, etc?
KN: I think it’s a decision year-by-year, and we’ll continue to evaluate them as we go. I think it’s also a matter of what players you could possibly bring in, and are they good fits, and we’ll evaluate that as we go.
CoBL: Cam Whitmore is expected to declare for the NBA Draft, where are you at in the conversations with him, and any sense of when he would make that decision?
KN: I think he’ll make that decision pretty soon. I don’t wanna comment on that until he makes his own decision. I’m sure he’ll make the best decision for himself and his family.
Ed. Note: Cam Whitmore declared for the NBA Draft on April 11
CoBL: You have one player signed for next year at the moment, Jordann Dumont, what is his game like, if you could compare him to a recent former Villanova player?
KN: He’s a truly talented player, he has a great size, 6-7 or 6-8, long arms, pretty athletic and mobile, great IQ, and he’s a high level shooter as well. We’re extremely excited about him coming in and developing into a big time player at some point in this program. To compare him to one guy, I think he’s pretty tough, he’s a pretty unique piece. Sometimes it's pretty easy to throw a guy into comparison, he’s pretty unique with his size and shooting ability.
CoBL: More similar to a Jordan Hall? Mikal Bridges?
KN: Jordan was more of a point guard, I don’t know if he’s that. He’s more of a shooter, scorer, and versatile defender.
It’s gonna be tough [to compare him to anyone], we’ve obviously thought about that in recruiting him, but I think he’s pretty unique, I don’t think we have a guy. As we talk right now I’m looking at the wall of some of our former players, we legitimately don’t have a guy that you can say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s just like this’, we don’t have a guy like that. He’s a 6-8 shooter, he can shoot the ball, he has high-level intelligence, he’s able to guard inside and out, I can’t say that we’ve had a guy at his stature in terms of his body and skillset, we just haven’t had a guy like that.
CoBL: Are you thinking of bringing in another guy for the 2023 freshman class, or are you just thinking transfer portal?
KN: Everything’s an option at this point, we’re not opposed to it or anything.
CoBL: Who do you feel like has to have a big summer for your program, that you can hopefully have step up?
KN: I think it starts with Justin and Eric, I think those guys. Obviously Justin is coming off a year where he’s coming off an Achilles [injury] and was hurt an entire year. I think that he can make a huge jump, and then Eric Dixon, again, a guy who made a huge jump this year, but I think his best days are also ahead of him, so I think those guys will continue to improve. Then the rest of our guys — between Mark Armstrong, a guy who with his athleticism, intelligence, a guy that got a lot of in-game experience this year, this summer will be huge for him with his improvement. Brendan [Hausen] and Jordan [Longino] I think are two more guys that their improvement throughout this summer, Brendan being one of the best shooters that we’ve ever had, and Jordan being one of our most versatile pieces, I think those guys can have a profound impact as we move forward.
CoBL: Where’s Nnanna Njoku at this point?
KN: Nnanna’s another unique entity as well, his athleticism, his mobility, just his toughness, I think he’s another guy that battled a lot of injuries this year and was unable to participate for most of the season, so I think his development and him getting healthy this summer will be big for us.
CoBL: What do you see as the biggest focal point from a team perspective that you guys need to improve on next year?
KN: I don't know if there’s any one area. I think that our focus this summer will be to try to improve each player. I think that’s our best path, so each player gets as good as they can throughout the summer, and if each player can improve at a high level then our team will improve as well.
CoBL: George Halcovage left for the Buffalo Job, do you have any thoughts on how that’s going to affect the staff?
KN: We’ll evaluate, that’s pretty fresh, so we’ll evaluate that as we go here, we’ll make that decision.