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Villanova still figuring out its early-season rotation ahead of Big 5 clash with Temple

The Owls, who host Villanova on Friday night, have not beaten the Wildcats since 2012.

Villanova coach Kyle Neptune directing the Wildcats in the opener against La Salle on Monday.
Villanova coach Kyle Neptune directing the Wildcats in the opener against La Salle on Monday.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Villanova men’s basketball coach Kyle Neptune was afforded some comforting components in his new job.

Among them: He recruited almost every player on the roster. He knows the members of the coaching staff well from his time sitting next to them on the bench. There was no introductory period. And he didn’t have to worry about unsatisfied players transferring when he got the job.

» READ MORE: Brand new coaches but familiar look to Villanova-La Salle opener

There were some unknowns, however. Justin Moore, the team’s top returning scorer, is still recovering from Achilles tendon surgery. Then, weeks before the season started, top freshman Cam Whitmore went down with a thumb injury and his status remains up in the air.

So, what would the rotation look like and how deep is the roster?

Those things are still being learned, although Neptune said leading up to the season that roster depth would let Villanova play faster than it played last season. Villanova finished 347th out of 358 teams in KenPom’s adjusted tempo metric.

The Wildcats mostly used seven to nine players last season, and only six averaged more than 10 minutes per game. A talented 2022 recruiting class combined with losing only two rotation players to graduation meant the opportunity to go a little deeper … until those injuries popped up.

But Neptune, that comfortability in mind, was pretty confident in a few things before Monday’s opener.

“We’ve been pretty steadfast from the beginning,” he said after Villanova’s 81-68 win over La Salle. “We know our top three guys, especially while Justin is out, it’s Eric [Dixon], Caleb [Daniels], and Brandon Slater. Jordan Longino is right there.”

Those first two names, Dixon and Daniels, had huge nights. Dixon, a redshirt junior, picked up where he left off last season by scoring 20 points. He took more shots (17) than he ever had in a Villanova uniform. Daniels, a 23-year-old grad student, had 24 points, the most he’s had since transferring to Villanova from Tulane, and recorded his first double-double as a Wildcat. Slater, meanwhile, was a menace on both ends with 12 points and eight rebounds. Sophomore Longino (12 points) looked more than capable of stepping into a bigger role, at least while Moore and Whitmore remain out. And senior guard Chris Arcidiacono had a typical night, making his impact by doing the little things.

It’s after those players, though, where Villanova is still trying to figure out what it has.

Freshman Mark Armstrong was the first player off the bench. He knocked down two threes and had two assists in 17 minutes. Redshirt freshman Angelo Brizzi played 13 minutes, grabbed four rebounds, and made his only shot attempt. Freshman Brendan Hausen played eight minutes, and sophomore Trey Patterson played 11.

Right now, Neptune is on a fact-finding mission with the back end of his rotation. These games without Moore and Whitmore will help determine how deep the bench is when those two return.

» READ MORE: Inside Haftu Strintzos’ journey from Ethiopia to Australia to Villanova cross-country star

“It’s a little bit of figuring those other guys out and seeing what spots [they fit],” Neptune said. “We have a lot of confidence in these guys. ... We think they’ll be fine.”

Friday’s game at Temple’s Liacouras Center (7 p.m., ESPNU) is another chance to get more data, but Neptune said something important when asked about the freshmen Monday night: “I didn’t feel like there was a difference between when they were out there and when they weren’t.”

Owls aim to rebound

Temple’s season couldn’t have started much worse. The Owls blew a 15-point second-half lead and were outworked by Wagner down the stretch in a 76-73 overtime loss.

Wagner grabbed 12 offensive rebounds and piled up 14 second-chance points. Temple coach Aaron McKie seemed to think communication breakdowns, as well as the effort, led to that.

“We spent the entire practice working on defense, working on our communication, just trying to keep guys in front of us and finishing plays off with rebounds,” McKie said.

If being outworked was a problem Monday night, Temple will have its hands full with a Villanova team that rarely takes plays off.

“They’re physically imposing,” McKie said. “They don’t make too many mistakes, so we’ve got to limit our mistakes and we’ve got to be rock solid with everything we’re doing. We can’t give those guys second-chance opportunities.”

* Javon Edmonds contributed to this article