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Something new for Villanova basketball: Forward U | Mike Jensen

"We haven’t played with this kind of size,'' Jay Wright says "Even for our coaching staff, it’s challenging."

Villanova coach Jay Wright during a practice last week.
Villanova coach Jay Wright during a practice last week.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

You’ve arrived on the Main Line, parked behind Villanova Stadium, ready to see some basketball. Welcome to Forward U.

What? Villanova is Guard U. Anyone knows that. ... Well, get used to something a little different in 2019-20. (Spoiler alert: It just might work.)

You start counting all the Villanova players who could start at, say, power forward, in some game this season without stretching anyone’s imagination, you get to five, maybe six players. Even at full health, the Wildcats don’t have that many pure guards on the roster.

What will actually happen, beginning with the opener Tuesday against Army, some forwards will start at other positions, some will come off the bench, and some will wait their turn. The skill sets vary. Some are more used to operating inside; others, on the perimeter. Roles will vary based on who else is on the court with them.

But start counting: Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, Saddiq Bey, Cole Swider. Include Eric Dixon as well, although Dixon’s minutes might be in the future. (For the record, they will eventually be valued minutes.)

The challenge of fitting this together falls on a coach who has had interesting puzzles before.

“We have versatility,’’ Jay Wright said Friday morning after practice. “But we haven’t played with this kind of size. Even for our coaching staff, it’s challenging — we’re going to get these guys their playing time. Also, we want to be able to utilize them so we’re effective. We’ve been able to do it with guards, a lot of guards. We’ve never done it with a lot of forwards before. We’re trying it. It’s new to us.”

Basic issues are obvious, starting with having enough defensive speed to guard typical college basketball teams, who won’t necessarily play along with Villanova’s wants and needs.

So take a guy like Swider, a sophomore with a strong basketball pedigree, a guy you want seeing minutes. Swider might fit the classic definition of a stretch four, a power forward who can really shoot it from deep, but he’s just as likely to be more of a three, a small forward.

“He’s 6-9 and a lot of times he’s caught guarding 6-2, 6-3 guards on the perimeter,’’ Wright said. “He’s not going to do that the same way a [guard] can or will. He’s going to have to do it a different way, but still within your system.

"It’s a challenge. That’s really our challenge, getting those guys to play effectively defensively, within our system.”

Swider said he’s been focusing on defensive footwork. Studying opponents means studying everybody.

“We always talk about, we’re probably going to guard everybody,’’ Swider said Friday, referring to defensive switches that are a Villanova man-to-man mainstay.

You think of Swider, you think of a shooter.

“I want to get a lot tougher, going to the basket, offensive rebounding,’’ Swider said. “I really worked on my post game a lot, too. Just getting into the post. That comes with me getting stronger.

"When going by guys, I’m not always like the quickest guy, but if I’ve got a smaller guy on me, and I’m able to try and go by him, turn it into a back-down. That would favor my size, take advantage of my size.”

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out offensively,’’ Wright said. “How we can take advantage of those guys inside. It all sounds good in X-and-O theory, but you’ve got to get into games and play against experienced smaller guards.”

The Wildcats can go small if they want. Wright pointed out that a lot of Villanova’s experience is with these frontcourt players, in addition to Robinson-Earl’s being savvy beyond his years.

“He’s an old soul,’’ Wright said of the freshman who led the Wildcats in scoring in their exhibition game at USC.

With point guard Collin Gillespie (broken nose) out against USC, “we weren’t great with it,’’ Wright said of the taller lineup. “They were a really big team. We were better actually [in a scrimmage against North Carolina, where freshman guard Justin Moore led in scoring.] We’ve just to keep getting better.”

Having to play big without Gillespie, “we put Justin Moore at the point. We played Saddiq Bey at the point. It forced us to find those situations.”

This was at USC. At UNC, Bey saw time at shooting guard.

“It was great at USC, playing him at the point,’’ Wright said. “He actually did a good job. The problem was, when he was the point and Justin Moore was out, we were huge. It was Cole Swider at the two, Jermaine at the three. That’s what we struggled with.”

Between injuries and foul trouble, such lineups might pop up.

“And against certain teams, we’ll want to do that,’’ Wright said. “The problem is, not in our league.”

Let’s argue that Villanova overachieved last season in winning the Big East, that this season’s group actually presents more potential paths to a March run.

(Last season, Villanova seemed a bit overrated in the preseason. This time, no; ninth or 10th nationally seems plausible. That equates to a Sweet 16 run with a possibility of getting to the Elite Eight. Put the potential return of freshman guard Bryan Antoine from shoulder surgery as a key X-factor in that upside, in addition to Gillespie and Moore staying healthy.)

“I’m not sure about this team because we’re so different,’’ Wright said. “I know what a team with a lot of guards looks like early in the season. I don’t know what a team with this much size looks like early in the season. We came out of USC real scared, because we played so big and we struggled with it. We went to UNC and we played better, so we’re really feeling a little bit more …”

He didn’t finish the sentence. Coaches are contractually obligated not to express even any confidence this time of year.

“Playing Army will be interesting,’’ Wright said. “They’re small, and they’re quick.”

Like Furman? (Villanova fans remember Furman.)

“Yeah!’’ Wright said. “That’s the kind of team that could give us trouble.”

We’ll see. Welcome to Forward U. Enjoy the ride, even when it gets a bit bumpy.