Listening to a few Villanova fans at the Finneran Pavilion taking in Thursday’s Blue-White scrimmage, the eavesdropping was kind of fun. I was listening to opinions on who might start, who was playing best.
Couldn’t agree with all of it. (These two older guys both thought that player played best? He probably wouldn’t even agree.) But it was enjoyable to hear basketball talk by people who cared about basketball in a place built and rebuilt for basketball.
“Playing in front of a crowd is always good,” Jay Wright said later, referencing a 2020-21 season of mostly fan-less basketball. “It just changes your mindset. … Walking in here, you could just feel the energy. You really felt the energy. When you’re in here night after night, year after year, you kind of take it for granted.”
Some basic observations: Whichever players end up starting, Villanova will have a Top 10-quality starting five. That’s a given. Even wearing a leg brace after MCL surgery, Collin Gillespie looked, well, normal, making a defender pay for shading off him for a split second. Guards Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels showed up ready to provide buckets.
Judging the inside guys too carefully didn’t make sense. There weren’t enough of them, with freshman Nnanna Njoku out, Wright said, on the last day of a concussion protocol. Eric Dixon, expected to start at center, did his thing, but wasn’t trying to put on a show. The competition Dixon faces down low will be different in-season. And Jermaine Samuels has long since proven himself.
Where it gets interesting: This scrimmage was proof that Villanova’s bench unit, if healthy, will be as good as any in the country, regardless of who comes off that bench. Say Wright brings Brandon Slater, Chris Arcidiacono, and Trey Patterson in as reserves. That trio looked ready to do damage at both ends.
Slater, for sure, has done work in the weight room. Already a defensive stopper, expect him to press for more minutes, since they often are winning minutes. And if you thought Arcidiacono was going to fade back into the woodwork after providing key contributions last season after Gillespie went out, it sure didn’t look like that Thursday.
“That’s not what ‘Archs’ do,” noted one interested observer, referring to the Arcidiacono brothers, Ryan and Chris, collectively. “They climb.”
That observer, Matt Bloom, was really there in the front row to see Patterson, since he was his high school coach at Jersey powerhouse Rutgers Prep.
What does Bloom see differently from when he had Patterson? Patterson, a 6-foot-9 forward, skipped his senior high school season to come down and join Villanova. A pandemic decision that paid off.
“Physically, he looks tremendous,’’ Bloom said. “He’s grown a little bit. He’s a lot stronger. He’s always taken care of his body. He’s taken it to the next level.”
Bloom might be biased, but his expertise can’t be questioned. He was a former Penn and La Salle hoops staffer, working under Fran Dunphy and John Giannini.
“He’s the most versatile player I’ve ever been around,” Bloom said of Patterson. “He can guard ‘one’ through ‘five.’ He can do a little bit of everything. And he understands where mismatches are on the court. Offensively, he can bring you out and shoot the ball, or he can use his footwork and his intelligence to go inside.”
You could see those sorts of things from Patterson on Thursday working against his teammates. Slam dunk, check. Block that was called a foul but might not have been, check. Three-pointer, check. Sweet pass, check.
“When I talk about the freshmen, I always forget to mention him, since he was with us last year,’’ Wright said. “I just don’t count him as a freshman. Because he’s got a feel for what we’re doing. I think he’s got the ability to improve during the year more so than the others because he’s been through game preparation with us, even though he didn’t play.”
Too early to envision a role for him?
“He’s going to have a role,” Wright said. “He’s going to help us.”
What did Patterson report back to Bloom about what it was like to be at Villanova during the pandemic?
“He really fit in nicely,” Bloom said. “They’ve taken him under their wing. He’s reaping the rewards. That bonding, that time together, really helped him.”
You can talk about fitting into a culture all you want, and they sure do at Villanova. But you win titles with players who can change a game by their presence. Patterson looks like one of those at some point. (And it seems like Villanova got a commitment this week from another one, explosive forward Cam Whitmore, who chose the Main Line over North Carolina and Illinois.)
Jordan Longino sat out the scrimmage with a bone bruise. With Bryan Antoine out for an extended period, only 10 players were available for the scrimmage.
“Our guys were sucking wind,” Wright said. “They were tired, but I felt like they were good enough to finish it. But they were tired.”
Maybe it’s too soon to judge anything too closely, but for a team with such big expectations, a good crowd got in there for some free October hoops, familiar faces on the court, and passionate opinions flying around the stands.