If there is a team built with the toughness, experience, poise and focus to handle anything that the strangest basketball season ever can throw at it, it’s Villanova.
The Wildcats, ranked No. 3 in the preseason, return four starters from the team that went 24-7 and grabbed a share of the Big East regular-season championship last season. They lost Saddiq Bey, a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Pistons, but added forward Eric Dixon and guard Caleb Daniels, two promising talents who redshirted last year.
Given those advantages, however, and the expectations that his team is considered among the favorites to grab a coveted Final Four berth next spring, Jay Wright can’t help but worry.
He admits he lays awake in bed the nights before he is to receive the results of COVID-19 testing of those in his program, but it isn’t just that. Wright said his players have been through a lot in terms of staying close in their team bubble and making other sacrifices in order to practice and play, not leading the typical life of a college student.
Given all these changes to a normal season, Wright says he is more concerned with his players’ mental health this season than their physical health. But he does admire how mentally tough they’ve been dealing with all the uncertainty.
“I have been very impressed with their mental toughness so far, I really have,” Wright said. “I hope it’s going to be a positive. But I’m not sure it is. You don’t know when it’s going to get to them. How long can they keep up this sacrifice? But they might be able to do it. They are impressing me so far.”
What was particularly worrying was having to quarantine in September after a few members of the program tested positive. While the quarantine period was 14 days, cardiac testing added more than another week before the Wildcats were able to return to practice.
“The quarantine just really stressed these guys,” he said. “Not being able to play, watching it get dragged out on all their teammates and us having six guys at practice, then not being able to see their families, not being able to see their girlfriends, taking all their classes online, not having the interactions they normally have as college kids.”
Senior guard Collin Gillespie, a preseason All-Big East selection, called it “a difficult situation” that is hard on everyone.
“Nobody has an advantage over anybody else because it’s bigger than basketball,” he said. “It’s just who can maintain that mental toughness and be able to just be locked into your teammates and be as safe as you can just to try to get through the year, get through as many games as you can.
“I think that’s going to be huge for our guys, staying disciplined at all times and being focused on our season. If that means being in a bubble and not seeing people, we want to play.”
Gillespie and forwards Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree give the Wildcats three strong senior leaders, although Cosby-Roundtree will not play early because of a shin injury. The leadership is important because the Cats, as with many programs across the country, have had less practice time than in a normal year.
Wright estimated the Wildcats did not have their usual summer of player development and went through 15 practices up to late last week. He said he has changed “a lot” about the way his team practices and how they’re going to play in games both offensively and defensively.
What he can’t wait for is to see his team play in a game, beginning Wednesday night against Boston College in the 2K Empire Classic at Uncasville, Conn. In a normal preseason, Villanova would have played major college programs in closed scrimmages with opponents like North Carolina and Virginia.
“We’ve had so many great ones,” he said. “But playing Boston College and then [a second game], they’re going to be good ones. That’s going to tell us a lot. These are really important games for us. Those games are going to be important for us to make decisions going forward.”
The Wildcats also will play Thursday night against either Arizona State or Rhode Island. The Rams are a late replacement for No. 2 Baylor, which decided Monday not to make the trip after coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19.
Gillespie, Samuels and sophomores Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are four certain starters. The fifth starter could be Daniels, a redshirt junior who transferred from Tulane, or juniors Cole Swider or Brandon Slater. Wright said his sixth man would be “maybe the most potent of those three offensively.”
With Cosby-Roundtree and sophomore guard Bryan Antoine out, Wright said he would play as many as nine in his rotation.
While the Wildcats didn’t get the preseason practice time to which they’re accustomed, Wright is eager to learn about how they will react in competition.
“Our first two games are really going to tell us who’s ready, what our rotation’s going to be,” he said. “We’re going to try to play all those guys and try to have good depth. That’s our plan right now. One of the things we’re trying to work on is making our depth a positive for us.”