Jay Wright started putting the 2018-19 Villanova puzzle together Tuesday, and right from the opening tap, the coach of the defending NCAA champs offered a minor surprise or two, with the acknowledgement that his puzzle board will change at times.
Jumping center was Dylan Painter, not Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. By the time Villanova dispatched Morgan State, 100-77, Cosby-Roundtree played 20 minutes and Painter just six, but that wasn't the point. Let's assume Painter, a 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore with inside skills and rebounding abilities, has fully earned some minutes, and the best way for Wright to give him some was right at the start.
Beyond that, figuring out what to do with an ultra-talented crop of freshmen who play overlapping positions is a legit test of Wright's puzzle-solving skills.
One thing Wright is not messing around with is getting freshman Saddiq Bey on the floor. The wing player hails from Sidwell Friends, the same D.C. high school as Josh Hart, and Bey doesn't appear to be the type to tremble at anyone noting this. A Hart comparison already looks valid — and that's Hart as a sophomore, not a freshman.
So, the new guy is better than Josh Hart? Not saying that. The improvement curve for Hart never stopped and still hasn't now that he's with the Lakers. It's just that Bey comes in ready to help.
When Tuesday's minutes were tallied, Bey had 21 of them, the same as Collin Gillespie. Only seniors Phil Booth (29) and Eric Paschall (26) had more. That was clearly not because Wright forgot to take Bey off the floor. Asked why Bey got out there more, Wright said, "Mostly because he defends and rebounds probably the best of the freshmen right now."
The new guy, who originally committed to North Carolina State, has skills — inside-out, post up inside or handle it outside, shoot a three, or get an offensive rebound. He finished with 16 points and 4 rebounds, making five of eight shots, including three of five three-pointers. His first two shots were treys, and he knocked them down. He also had four fouls, a reminder that he is, indeed, a freshman.
Another nice first impression came from Albany transfer Joe Cremo, who had been told by Wright that he needed to take the shots offered. Who wouldn't want to hear that? Cremo's first touch was a catch, immediately followed by a three-point shot that went down. Cremo made three of five three-pointers and scored 10 points in 18 minutes.
If you thought big-time freshman Jahvon Quinerly might start in a three-guard set with Gillespie and Booth, Wright decided to open with a lineup of veterans, giving Jermaine Samuels the start, since the sophomore forward clearly has earned a bigger role, and he made five of nine shots and grabbed six rebounds in 15 minutes. Quinerly still got 17 minutes and dished three assists. His shot wasn't on (1-for-4, all from three) but his game isn't about accumulating threes. Those minutes should only go up.
The rotation included two more highly recruited freshmen, Cole Swider and Brandon Slater. Swider came in with the rep as the top shooting forward in his class, and while he made only one of six shots, and none from three, the one told you more than the five misses. Late in the first half, Swider hit a pull-up 14-footer. That shot off the dribble was so smooth that the Sixers might want Swider to show a couple of their guys how it's done.
Slater, meanwhile, got nine minutes and didn't take a shot. He's still in the phase of earning minutes, as Samuels was last season.
What was the cost of all this shuffling? In the first half, you wondered if it impacted everyone's rhythm. He's had strong benches in the past, and they were decisive in the title runs, but the rotations were shorter. Does Wright worry about that?
"I really don't,'' Wright said. "Eric and Phil and Collin, they're going to be kind of the guys who are going to stay in a rhythm. Everyone else has got to learn. You know, when a guy's in there going well, we've got a good group going, I think they'll get into a rhythm. We've always done that. We want guys always to be ready. We practice that way. We change guys from blue to white in practice all the time."
At one point in the first half, the four freshmen were out there with Booth. In the second half, they were all out there with Samuels, who probably didn't expect to be the wily vet so early in his career.
Late in the first half, Morgan State, using five quick players moving all over the court, cut Villanova's lead to 49-41. You could see some of the younger guys not knowing exactly what their help assignments were.
None of his brethren are going to feel sorry for Wright, who lost four players to the NBA. Help is always on the way. Paschall will always be a matchup nightmare. Booth will always be the most experienced guard on the floor. Just don't be surprised by little surprises.