Despite his team’s success in recent seasons, Villanova coach Jay Wright knows he needs to prepare for the unexpected, as he saw when he lost underclassmen Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to the NBA draft after the Wildcats captured the 2018 national championship.
Not that it was a total shock to lose DiVincenzo and Spellman, but their departures left the Cats short on productivity for 2018-19 and on experience this past season when Villanova took the court without any scholarship seniors.
The only surprise in this offseason of the coronavirus pandemic will be the day when it’s finally declared that it is safe to play basketball and other sports again. Until then uncertainty reigns, especially in the case of the NBA draft and college underclassmen working out for NBA teams, and finding players to replace them.
However, although sophomore Saddiq Bey and freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl will test the NBA draft waters and could leave, Wright can replace one or both with the guys already on his bench – four of them, to be exact – and most likely without an incoming freshman.
Freshman guards Bryan Antoine and Chris Arcidiacono, and a pair of redshirts, freshman Eric Dixon and Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels, are waiting in the wings. Some or all of them will be added to the rotation to join holdovers starters Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, and Justin Moore, and key reserves Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Cole Swider, and Brandon Slater.
Wright is particularly excited about both the 6-foot-5 Antoine, a five-star high school recruit from North Jersey who underwent major shoulder surgery in late May and played in only 16 games last season, and the 6-8 Dixon, the Abington High product who was named 2018-19 Pennsylvania high school player of the year.
“We tried to get Bryan healthy and get him caught up to speed,” Wright said Tuesday during a conference call, “but halfway through the year, we said, ‘Look, man, you’re so far behind,’ and he knew it. I said, ‘Let’s just look at it like a redshirt year.’
“I think it’s a great story to talk about how this kid so intelligently handled the injury, the hype, the questions, worked his butt off to get better, no ego, so smart about the process. I’m so proud of him and so happy for him he made it through this year.
“Eric Dixon, we love this dude, we love him. He was state player of the year, but he kind of went under the radar, so he really didn’t have the pressure on him this year. We were able to get him in shape and teach him. I think he’s going to be a really good player, he’s going to help us next year. He really had a beneficial redshirt year. He’s a low-post player like we haven’t had.”
With no seniors and 12 players on scholarship this past season, Wright didn’t go hard after the 2020 recruiting class. He and his staff set the groundwork for 2021 when Gillespie, Samuels, and Cosby-Roundtree will graduate and Bey and/or Robinson-Earl likely will leave if they stick around for 2020-21.
However, the inability to go out this spring and evaluate high school players is a setback for Wright and his fellow coaches, and campus visits are indefinitely on hold.
“Fortunately, we’ve gotten to see everybody,” Wright said. “The spring [usually] is when we really kind of can prioritize and then go to work with what we’re doing. That’s going to make it harder for us. The summer is when we can really nail it down and almost get a feel for where we’re going to be commitment-wise.
“That ’21 class is huge for us because I think we’re going to lose a lot of guys, maybe underclassmen and three seniors next year. I really think it could impact us. I’m not making excuses. We’re going to have to find a way to adjust.”
That’s just the way it is in the 2020 offseason, with the pandemic affecting every walk of life.
“Everything is so fluid right now in our society,” Wright said. “The virus trickles down to every other aspect of our society, and I’m sure recruiting and this NBA process is going to be affected, and it might affect us all next year.