The pandemic has affected not only games and practices during this difficult college basketball season, but also chances for coaches to develop their young bench players.
That’s been the story for Villanova, which has been affected by three pauses in its program brought about by the coronavirus. Two of them took place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 14, a period where the Wildcats practiced only once and went 27 days between games.
However, with time running out on a regular season that has been anything but regular, coach Jay Wright is seeing his bench play an increasingly more prominent role, both at practice and in games.
In the last two contests, Wright felt the reserves prepared the starters well in victories over Connecticut and St. John’s, and then contributed on the court with strong two-way play. But finding enough time to work with Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Bryan Antoine, and Eric Dixon during the season has been a concern.
“They’re the guys that really got impacted by no spring, no summer, really no fall for us,” Wright said after the Cats’ 81-58 win over St. John’s. “Then there was the quarantine in the middle of the season, you don’t have time to work with the guys you want to develop.
“You’ve got to get the guys that are going to play, you’ve got to get them straightened out. And they’re smart about it. I really respect their patience but we need them, we need them all. They’re getting there. We’re just running out of time here in a short season.”
Swider and Slater, both juniors, have been the primary bench players for the Wildcats (15-3, 10-2), who play Sunday at Butler. In the nine games since the team’s restart Jan. 19, Swider has averaged 21 minutes, 5.3 points, and 4.0 rebounds with 11 three-pointers and was praised by Wright for an outstanding defensive game in the win over Georgetown.
Slater has been the defensive stopper, doing a fine job in slowing down UConn’s James Bouknight, who made only 1 of his last 10 shots in ‘Nova’s 68-60 victory last Saturday. He’s had nine steals in the last nine games, some of which have resulted in coast-to-coast dunks.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl offered glowing assessments of both of his teammates’ play.
On Swider: “He’s improved tremendously. Each year you can see improvements that he’s gotten better at. He’s probably one of the hardest workers that I know. He puts in a lot of extra time and a lot of work in to making him the best player he possibly can be.”
On Slater: “He has a lot of energy. He’s really active and he’s willing to make plays because he knows we have his back. But he’s very active, a long, lengthy, athletic player that can really wreak havoc on the defensive end.”
A recent addition off the bench has been Antoine, who injured his surgically repaired right shoulder during the team’s September pause and did not return to competition until the closing minutes of recent games against Marquette and Creighton.
Antoine played a season-high 11 minutes against St. John’s, scoring his first three points of the season, and impressed with a diving save of a loose ball that resulted in Slater’s dunk the other way. Wright indicated Antoine’s role would increase since he’s healthy and “he’s starting to get comfortable with what we’re doing.
“It’s just not fair to put a kid in there that has no clue what you’re doing, and it’s not his fault because he hasn’t practiced,” he said. “The first thing was getting him healthy. We got him healthy so he could practice and now he’s starting to put some practices together. We’re just going to try to keep bringing him along.”
Collin Gillespie has applauded the reserves who make up the Green Team, named for the green numbers attached to the jerseys representing the number of the particular opponent in practice. He likes how they bring their practice intensity into the games.
“Those are the guys that we’re playing against every day in practice,” he said. “They’re really getting into us and making it tough for us in practice. So we have a ton of confidence in those guys when they come into games because we know that they’re making plays in practice.”
Robinson-Earl, who leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding, has been named as one of five finalists for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year award presented by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.