Jay Wright knows his basketball team is going to be very good. All the expected components of a Villanova contender are there — talent, athleticism, heart, teamwork — and with even a touch more size than usual as a bonus from this roster.
Wright knows this is going to be a very good, possibly great, team. The problem is he doesn’t know when.
“I say to them all the time, ‘I could just back off and say, we’re all young, we’re all going to be back next year, we’re going to be good. But let’s challenge ourselves right now to be as good as you can be right now,’” Wright said. “Sometimes, you have to explain to them that’s why we’re pushing you so hard.”
Time is working against Wright and the Wildcats in two ways. Time, as in experience on the court, is the first way. In conference games so far, Villanova has played a seven-man rotation for the most part, made up of two juniors, three sophomores, and two freshmen. This is not optimal for any team that wants to win immediately, but is particularly hard in a system that works best when relying on team cohesion rather than spectacular individualism.
“We’re probably not as good dealing with inexperienced players as some coaches and programs,” Wright said. “That’s not one of our strengths.”
Time is also against Villanova because it is getting short. Once the calendar flips to January, it is a quick downhill run to the conference and national tournaments. Improving on the fly as the pace and difficulty of the schedule increases is really difficult.
So, Wright is pushing, not because he is sure the dual clocks working against him can be slowed, but because the possibility is there. The team is leaning on sophomore forward Saddiq Bey and junior guard Colin Gillespie right now. They are the most advanced of the bunch, but it will be interesting to see which of the other players grow most quickly this season into their potential.
“The crazy thing is I really believe that by next year, it will be all of these guys. I really believe in all of them,” Wright said. “I just have to see which ones can really do it quickly here.”
The most obvious candidate is freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American who was rated among the top 20 recruits for 2019. Robinson-Earl is ridiculously athletic taking the ball to the basket and a quick, willing defender.
Against Georgetown on Saturday, in an 80-66 Villanova win, Robinson-Earl took the main defensive responsibility on senior center Omar Yertseven and held the Hoyas’ leading scorer to 10 points. Robinson-Earl also scored in double figures (14) for the first time against a Big East opponent and had a team-high seven rebounds.
Freshman guard Justin Moore is also a possibility for quick development. He’s composed and responsible on the court, and, aside from a poor shooting game against Georgetown, has been remarkably steady. The wild card, however, could be 6-5 freshman Bryan Antoine, another McDonald’s All-American and top-20 recruit, who has been working his way back from shoulder surgery and is still struggling to crack the rotation.
“I would say if he had a long way to go, but he doesn’t have a long way to go. He’s going to make mistakes, but we’ve got starters making mistakes. We have to get the rest of the guys playing better and more consistent, so you can put a young guy in there in tight games,” Wright said. “We’re just trying to bring Antoine around so he knows what we’re doing, but I’ve got to take some chances and throw him in there.”
Getting this team ready to possibly do great things this season will require taking chances with youth, and that’s not Wright’s favorite way to play. It is really his only option, however, and this one happens to be the only season the Wildcats can play right now.
For all the inexperience and uncertainty, Villanova (12-3) is still No. 14 in the nation, and is ranked behind only Butler (No. 5) in a pretty wide-open Big East. Butler, at 15-1, is clearly the class of the league, and the Bulldogs are led — guess what? — by senior guard Kamar Baldwin and redshirt senior swingman Sean McDermott.
“We’ll see how it plays out. I thought Butler [looks] like they have a little separation to me right now,” Wright said. “What the season is about is where does it end up? Some years, we’ve been a good team early and then it’s about how you deal with success. A season is a crazy journey. We’re definitely not one of those teams this year, but we have great upside, a lot of potential, a lot of young guys.”