Maybe this falls in the category of the rich getting richer, or at least luckier. Just understand that Villanova sophomore forward Saddiq Bey, playing as good a game of basketball as any Big 5 player this season, didn’t have to be at Villanova. We know Bey originally committed to North Carolina State, decommitted and a couple of months later was a very late addition to Jay Wright’s 2018 recruiting class.
You just don’t get players of Bey’s caliber in the summer after a senior year. Villanova got lucky. After Tuesday night’s win over Butler, after another nice Bey performance, Wright also explained that Villanova had begun recruiting Bey, then stopped, for a common reason.
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“We got very lucky. We really did,’’ Wright said, with Bey sitting next to him after the ninth-ranked Wildcats beat 13th-ranked Butler, 76-61, with Bey contributing 14 points and some solid defense. “We started to recruit him early. Somebody else committed. We knew he was perfect for us. But somebody else committed before him. We didn’t want to recruit somebody else at his position.”
Bey had gone to Sidwell Friends in Washington. That’s Josh Hart’s old school.
“We knew what he was all about,’’ Wright said. “As soon as he became available [again], we jumped on him.”
What changed was that Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman had left early for the NBA after their great seasons resulted in an NCAA title. Plan A was torn up a bit, Villanova in scramble mode. Joe Cremo came in late as a transfer. Bey turned out to be the key late addition.
“We always try to not have too many players,’’ Wright said. “We’d rather be short players than have too many, because too many, that can affect your culture. If you’re short, you can … like we had that year when Phil Booth got hurt and sat out, we had like seven guys. Some people say, if you had an eighth guy, you would have won a championship. If you had that eighth guy and [Booth] played and you had nine, you might have had a terrible culture.”
Another thing: Recruiting starts so early. Bey might have checked a lot of recruiting boxes, but not all the same boxes he checks now.
“He was a little guard,’’ Wright said.
Like a 6-foot-1 sophomore?
“A little smaller than that even,’’ Bey said. He’d explained before that season that as a high school freshman, he was 5-9. Of his growth spurt: “It was gradual, to be honest.”
“He’s gotten bigger since he’s been here,’’ Wright said. “He’s like 6-8, 6-9. When he first came, he was like 6-6, 6-7.”
Last season, Bey had quickly shown that he was ready for the college game, that he had a basketball IQ to go with his obvious physical gifts. When the ball got to him, it didn’t necessarily stop there. In the first six games of his college career, he averaged almost 16 points. Scouting reports weren’t completely ready for him.
This season, with opponents as prepared as they can be, Bey has made 46.4% of his three-pointers, 42nd in Division I. Fouling him isn’t a great strategy, either, since he’s made 79.6% from the line, which is actually fifth among the top six Villanova players — an underrated reason that this year’s team has been successful. He’s averaging 15 points, after scoring 8.2 as a freshman.
Bey wasn’t usually asked to be a defensive stopper as a freshman, until late in the season, Wright recalled, when Marquette’s Markus Howard was going off on them, as Markus Howard can do.
“We said, ‘Let’s put some size on him and then we realized, ‘Whoa, he’s pretty good,’ ‘’ Wright said, remembering how Villanova didn’t win that game — Howard had 38. But late in the game, Bey had an impact. “He stripped Markus Howard,’’ Wright said.
So now, with another dynamic guard such as Butler’s 6-1 Kamar Baldwin, Bey gets a lot of the defensive responsibility. Bey talked about the trust he has in his teammates, that somebody will get there if a player such as Baldwin goes by him. This year’s Wildcats aren’t creating a lot of turnovers, but they’re certainly contesting shots.
“We’ve got length,’’ Wright said. “We haven’t been this long in a long time.”