PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Kyle Neptune took over a Villanova program that hummed along as one of the best in college basketball.
Those Big East titles, automatic. Final Four expectations, as high as the national championship banners raised in the rafters at the Pavilion.
Sure, some growing pains were expected when Neptune inherited the top spot on the bench once Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright made his shock retirement ahead of last season.
But the hits — and the L’s — were relentless on the Main Line.
Cam Whitmore, a first-round NBA draft pick, missed the first chunk of the season following thumb surgery. There was a loss in the second game of the season to city rival Temple. The Wildcats lost four straight games in late November and then lost five of six in — gasp! — conference play.
By the time the Wildcats (17-17, 10-0 Big East) ended the season with an NIT loss at Liberty, Neptune’s debut never neared the lofty standard set by Wright.
Neptune’s second season has all the potential to not only surpass his first one, but to stake the No. 22 Wildcats back among the nation’s elite.
“Villanova, from what everybody tells me, is back in a big way,” St. John’s coach Rick Pitino said. “I know most of his players since I was looking at some of them. Villanova will be back as one of the premier schools in the nation again. It takes a while to replace Jay Wright. They had a rash of injuries, and it was unfair. Now (Neptune’s) got a great basketball team.”
Pitino has been around a time or two. And a time or two more, so his scouting report on the Wildcats might prove to be spot on.
Here’s a look at why optimism has returned to Villanova.
LOOK WHO’S BACK
By most scouting reports, guard Justin Moore should be in the NBA or, at worst, playing professionally somewhere this season. Moore tore his right Achilles’ tendon in the waning moments of the 2022 NCAA regional final, costing him a chance to play in the Final Four, sending him into months of rehab, and stripping him of his choice to turn pro. Moore returned to play 13 games for the Wildcats and then, in large part thanks to the program’s healthy name, image, and likeness collective, eschewed transfer options and decided to return for one more season with Villanova.
Moore was a preseason All-Big East first team pick. He admits he wasn’t close to 100% last season, but he feels his speed and his explosiveness have returned. A big season from Moore — who has plenty to prove to NBA scouts — should mean a big season for Villanova.
Villanova forward Eric Dixon, another senior, was a second-team pick. Dixon is another postseason-tested veteran who averaged 25.2 minutes in 38 starts in the 2022 Final Four team.
Jordan Longino is injury-free, and Mark Armstrong and Chris Arcidiacono all figure to get quality minutes. The Wildcats are counting on 6-foot-9 Nnanna Njoku to put injuries behind him and compete for serious minutes in the frontcourt.
LOOK WHO’S HERE
Under Wright, the Wildcats rarely lost quality players to transfers, and they rarely added them, too. But that was under the old model of college hoops when portals and NILs didn’t dominate the landscape.
After last season, Neptune and his staff hit the portal and found a pair of starters.
Washington State transfer TJ Bamba and Maryland transfer Hakim Hart join Moore and Dixon as part of a starting lineup poised to do damage. Bamba, a 6-foot-5 guard out of New York, averaged 15.8 points as a junior. The 6-foot-8 Hart starts his fifth season of college basketball and averaged 11.4 points for a surprise Maryland team. Hart isn’t much of a 3-point shooter — just 33% last season.
Tyler Burton from Richmond and Kentucky transfer Lance Ware make up the largest transfer class anyone can remember at Villanova. Burton averaged 19 points and 7.4 rebounds with the Spiders and hit the 1,500-point and 750-rebound career marks.
Long the dominant team in the Big East, the Wildcats are again looking up. UConn is the national champion and one of three conference teams — along with Marquette and Creighton — ranked above them in the poll.
There are games against Maryland, a potential matchup with North Carolina at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, Kansas State and UCLA on the slate before Big East play.
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball