The key, Jay Wright says, is patience.
"I know I've got to do it, but it's easier said than done," Villanova's head coach said.
For Wright, this is a season unlike any of the previous 17 of his tenure on the Main Line. Not all of his time through the years has been spent winning national championships or making a deep NCAA run, but no matter how the Wildcats ended a season, a next class of juniors and sophomores always moved up.
The difference this time is that in addition to Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, both of whom were expected to leave after their junior seasons, the Cats also lost Donte DiVincenzo, who had two years of eligibility remaining, and Omari Spellman, who competed for just one season. All four began the autumn on NBA rosters.
So other than returning fifth-year seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, the cupboard was pretty much empty of truly experienced players. Wright went out and got guard Joe Cremo of Albany, his first graduate transfer since taking the 'Nova job in 2001, but the other eight players competing for starting jobs or spots in the rotation are freshman and sophomores.
The freshmen – 6-foot-1 guard Jahvon Quinerly, 6-9 forward Cole Swider, 6-7 forward Brandon Slater, and 6-8 forward Saddiq Bey – made up a recruiting class that was ranked between No. 9 and No. 12. Quinerly (speed), Swider (three-point stroke), Slater, and Bey (both versatility) bring important talents to their new team.
In preparation for the season opener Tuesday against Morgan State, they are learning the ways of what is known as "Villanova basketball" – taking charges, diving for loose balls, playing for your teammates among them. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Wright, however, is imparting what he demands at the defensive end of the court.
"I've been pretty good in practice and then as soon as we got into the scrimmage, I got a little nuts," he admitted. "But a lot of it is on me and the coaching staff. We have to be patient with these guys. I think if we're patient, we have a better chance of them picking it up quicker because we'll be teaching more than reprimanding."
The newcomers all are aware of what is expected from them.
"It's a big jump [from high school] that you have to make," said Quinerly, a five-star high school recruit. "I feel like every day you're got to work on getting better and just paying attention. That's one of the main things, paying attention to detail. I'm working on bringing that consistency every day."
Like his fellow freshmen, Slater said the help of the older players has been invaluable.
"They've been tremendous," he said. "They've been like coaches on the floor and off the floor as well. They've been through experiences that I'm now just going through. It feels amazing to have somebody by your side and helping you out like that."
Booth, the only holdover who played in both national championship games, thinks the freshmen have done well considering everything that's being thrown at them.
"First of all, you're getting used to the athleticism, the speed, and the physicality at this level," he said, "and then you've got to learn the terminology, how we play and what we're trying to do. It's a lot. You've got to be able to listen and retain information, but these freshmen are doing a very good job of it."
While Wright and his staff work with the freshmen, he acknowledges that the sophomores – Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Jermaine Samuels, and Dylan Painter – are getting "pushed ahead" to absorb what's expected of them at a quicker rate.
It could take a while for depth to develop. It remains to be seen how many players will be part of Wright's rotation, which is normally eight or nine. He hopes that can be settled by the start of the Big East schedule on Jan. 2.
Certainly no one is feeling sorry for Wright and the Wildcats. Two years of climbing a ladder inside massive Texas indoor stadiums snipping down nets to commemorate a national championship mark spectacular achievements. Now the bull's-eye on Villanova's back is even larger, and opponents will seek to take advantage of any weakness related to the team's inexperience.
"When you play against teams, they're going at you at a different level than they do against other teams, a level you can't understand," he said. "The jersey you're wearing has been beating them. They're here to kill you. So we have to be patient, rely on our older players, and be better teachers."
Last year: 36-4, 14-4 Big East (second in regular season, won conference tournament, won national championship).
Coach: Jay Wright (18th season, 422-165; overall, 544-250).
Key returnees: Eric Paschall, 6-8, R-Sr. (10.6 ppg., 5.3 rpg.); Phil Booth, 6-3, R-Sr. (10.0 ppg.); Collin Gillespie, 6-3, So. (4.3 ppg.); Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, 6-9, So. (3.1 ppg.).
Who's gone: G Jalen Brunson (18.9 ppg.); G/F Mikal Bridges (17.7 ppg.); G Donte DiVincenzo (13.4 ppg.); F Omari Spellman (10.9 ppg.).
Who's new: Joe Cremo, 6-4, Sr. (transfer from Albany); Jahvon Quinerly, 6-1, Fr.; Brandon Slater, 6-7, Fr.; Cole Swider, 6-9, Fr.; Saddiq Bey, 6-8, Fr.
What to look for: The Wildcats have one of their bigger rebuilding projects since Wright's early years with a roster that includes eight freshmen and sophomores. A key to the season will be how quickly the first-year players learn the system and the defense. Booth and Paschall will be the steady hands until everyone else becomes accustomed to their roles. The Cats may have some problems early, but Wright thinks they will be a good team in time. After his success in the last five seasons (165-21), few people doubt him.
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