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Villanova's season ends in first-round NIT bowout

03/21/2024, 1:00am EDT
By Finn Courtney

Finn Courtney (@finncourtney_)

If Villanova’s men were consistent with anything this season, it truly was their inability to put together a full 40 minutes of basketball, with their season-ending 70-61 loss against VCU a microcosm of that fact.

In a 2023-24 season punctuated by consistency with inconsistency, injuries to key players and bookended by fan restlessness and noticeable yells of “Fire Neptune” as the final buzzer sounded to wrap up their loss against the Rams, the second-year head coach understood the frustration.

“I didn’t hear any of that, [but] listen I understand, I get the frustration,” Neptune said, post-game. “We’re all frustrated, me included. Definitely not the end of the season that I wanted, our team wanted and the fans wanted.”

Villanova coach Kyle Neptune (center) sits at the post-game podium with TJ Bamba (left) and Eric Dixon (right). (Photo: Finn Courtney/CoBL)

Put simply, it appeared as if VCU (23-13) wanted the game more than the NIT No. 1 seed Wildcats (18-16) at times, especially in the final minutes as sloppy turnovers littered the floor and poorly-executed traps led to two wide-open dunks for Rams players.

“We were a little off balance by their length, I really feel like they clogged the paint [and] they made it hard for us to get the ball moving,” Neptune said. “They didn’t let us get to the offensive glass, they kept us out of transition. I thought they just did a good job.”

It also marked Villanova’s fourth loss in their final five games of the season, a dismal result for a team that one month ago was looked at as an NCAA tournament-level team by many bracketologists. In the last two years, the Wildcats have won 35 games, equalling their total from the 2015-16 championship game and one fewer than their title team from 2017-18.

The game not being a part of March Madness didn’t stop star forward Eric Dixon from continuing an outstanding stretch of production, doing everything he could for his team with 21 points (7-14 FG, 7-10 FT) and 13 rebounds in what might be his final game in a Villanova uniform.

“[The season] just ended [and] it’s a long offseason,” said Dixon, the Abington grad with a sixth and final season of college basketball left to use if he so chooses. “A lot of time between now and the next game in my career. So, I’m just thinking about this one.”

Whether it be returning for a final season as a Wildcat or dipping his toe in the professionals, the Willow Grove native has put together an outstanding campaign, finishing as the team’s leading scorer (16.6 points per game) and leading rebounder (6.5 per game). 

From a redshirt in his true freshman season at Villanova, to being a starter on the 2022 Final Four team to the go-to star of the last two, he has defined the prototypical Villanova process in his career - one that may be a rare sight with the rise of NIL and the unchecked power of the transfer portal.

“It’s an elite program with elite people in it,” Dixon said. “Guys in this group [came] in and gave a lot of themselves to be [...] and it’s kind of difficult. [...] Just gonna miss the opportunity to suit up with TJ [Bamba], [Hakim Hart], Tyler [Burton], Justin [Moore], [Chris Arcidiacono], those guys, their time to go.”

For the first of those names - TJ Bamba - his first season at Villanova was one of ups and downs, finishing the second leading scorer (10.1 ppg) but marred with inconsistency from game-to-game and a facial fracture against UConn that affected his play down the stretch.

“[This season] challenged me as a man, it challenged my mental strength, challenged my discpline, determination and dedication,” Bamba said. “It was a lot of ups and downs, some people could choose to fold, give up, but we didn’t. We kept fighting no matter what the results we got. It just made me stronger in who I am as a person, knowing that even on the bad days, you can fight through, push through and give it your all.”

Bamba finished with the most of any guard against VCU, with 12 points (4-7 FG, 1-3 3PA, 3-4 FT) as besides him and Mark Armstrong, Villanova guards were a combined 5-16 with Justin Moore’s final game certainly not his finest one.

A career battle-tested by injuries and being able to recover, Moore’s stellar Villanova career finished with a whimper than a deserved bang, as the fifth-year graduate student totaled a -21 in the +/ and registered two points (1-7 FG, 0-3 3PA) and six rebounds in the loss.

“I think you gotta evaluate Justin Moore for the entirety of his career,” Neptune said. “He’s meant a lot to this program, he’s meant a lot to this campus community and that’s how I’ll remember him.”

This offseason is a critical one not just for Neptune but Villanova’s program.

Moore, Tyler Burton, Hakim Hart and Chris Arcidiacono’s college careers are over. Dixon, Bamba and Lance Ware’s could be as well if they opt not to return for another season; there’s even more uncertainty thanks to the recently-loosened transfer restrictions, so this offseason may be just as busy as the last for Villanova, when Neptune brought in four transfers.

Neptune, ever calm and collected, maintained his vision of a bright future for the Wildcats, these past two seasons notwithstanding.

“We have a great staff here, the guys that come back, we’ll get them better in the offseason,” Neptune said. “The guys that are coming back, I think we [got some] big time guys, we got some young guys coming back that I think have a good future. And we’ve got guys coming in that we think that can really help us, and we’ll make some additions based off of need as we go. I think we’ll have a great summer [and] we’ll come back next year. We have a type of program, type of people here that are grinders and we’ll continue to grind.”

While the future may be bright in this staff’s eyes, what wasn’t bright on this occasion was the typically great home atmosphere Villanova’s known for. Whether it be frustration among the Villanova community, the disappointment of it being an NIT game or the awkward timing of the game (9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday), Nova Nation didn’t come all out for its team, with the Finneran Pavilion registering a dismal attendance figure of 1,763 - the lowest in more than 20 years of home games.

“Obviously, we didn’t have the results we wanted towards the end of the season, I get it, I get the frustration,” Neptune said. “All we can do as a staff is go back, put our heads together, we’re gonna come up with a great plan. We’re gonna push our guys as hard as possible in the offseason, we’re gonna recruit some great guys here and we’re gonna come back better than ever next year.”

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