In its season opener Tuesday night against Army, No. 10 Villanova started quickly, finished strong and did enough in the middle to give coach Jay Wright plenty to work on in getting his young team better.
The Wildcats used their superior size and talent to defeat the Black Knights, 97-54, at Finneran Pavilion, kicking off the program’s 100th season. The margin was mostly the result of a 40-9 stretch in the opening 14 minutes and a 34-12 run in the final 13 minutes, along with a 54-26 rebounding advantage.
There were some lapses, as Wright said afterward, and the Wildcats have to work junior point guard Collin Gillespie back into the lineup after Gillespie sat out most of the preseason, first with plantar fasciitis and later with a broken nose. Gillespie had 11 points and four assists in 26 minutes.
“Collin hasn’t really practiced or played in any scrimmages,” Wright said. “He didn’t look great but it was just good to get him out on the floor and get him in a game. I think our depth was pretty good tonight. We were kind of sloppy with the ball. We knew we were going to have things to work on coming out of this game.”
Forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who with guard Justin Moore became the ninth and 10th true freshmen to start their first game in the Wright era, led everyone with 24 points and 13 rebounds, showing an array of moves inside and a smooth shooting stroke from outside.
Sophomore Saddiq Bey, who is being asked to handle the basketball more, added 22 points for the Wildcats and Cole Swider chipped in with 18. The Wildcats shot 52.2 percent from the field, 40 percent (12 of 30) from three-point range, and outrebounded Army by 54-26.
Tommy Funk, a high school teammate of Gillespie at Archbishop Wood, and Tucker Blackwell led the Black Knights (0-1) with 15 points apiece.
Army shot poorly for much of the first half but narrowed its 31-point deficit to 23, 49-26, by halftime. The visitors played the Wildcats even for the first seven minutes of the second half before Villanova ran away with the game.
“Great teams play every possession for 40 minutes,” Wright said. “We’re not ready to do that yet. That’s one of the things we’re going to take from this game."
Wright went for the most part with an eight-man rotation -- three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen. The big man was the 6-foot-9 Robinson-Earl, who shot 9 of 14 from the floor, grabbed six offensive rebounds and did not commit a turnover after halftime after five miscues in the first half.
Wright said he already had seen that kind of performance in the Wildcats’ exhibition game last month at Southern California, “so I’m over being surprised.
“I’m impressed with his maturity and his basketball IQ,” he said. “At halftime I can get on him about five turnovers and he can come out in the second half and not turn the ball over, and not sulk or anything."
Said Robinson-Earl, “It was just a lot of fun going out there. I wasn’t really thinking about how I did personally. We just go out every night and play Villanova basketball the best way we can and the outcome is how we play every night.”