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Back to the Big East: Villanova

Catching up with UConn’s soon-to-be conference mates in the Big East. First up: Villanova.

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright during a 2018 UConn vs. Villanova game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Ian Bethune - The UConn Blog)
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It has been quite some time since UConn looked up to the rafters in the XL Center and saw the spotlight on a Big East opponent. That changes this season, so let’s take a look at what each of the schools in the Big East have been up to over the last seven years.

Leading up to the Huskies’ re-entrance to the conference on July 1, the UConn Blog will be profiling each of the other 10 Big East men’s basketball programs. First up, we have Villanova, who have been the most successful of the bunch since UConn moved to the American.

Quick facts

Head Coach: Jay Wright

2020 Record: 24-7, 13-5 in Big East play

NCAA Championships: Three (1985, 2016 and 2018)

Big East Tournament Championships: Five (1995, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019)

Big East Regular Season Titles: Six (1982, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019)

Home Courts: William B. Finneran Pavilion in Villanova, PA and Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA

Average Home Attendance: 9,053 in 2019

What have UConn fans missed

Villanova has been one of the most successful college men’s basketball programs of the last seven years, going a combined 216-38 since UConn left the Big East. It won at least 30 games every year from 2013-14 to 2017-18 before falling under the thresholds as its players began to move up to the next level.

Since 2013, Villanova has seen just two fates: a loss in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament or a confetti shower. It failed to make it past the third round of the tournament in 2014 — losing to UConn who were en route to its latest banner — 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2016 and 2018, it climbed the mountain and took the grand prize — a national title.

In 2016 the Wildcats tore through their schedule, finishing 35-5 on the back of a roster made up of six NBA talents. Their offense was led by current New Orleans Pelicans guard Josh Hart, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds on 31.4 minutes played and forward Kris Jenkins, who hit the famed buzzer beater on North Carolina in the title game to seal their championship.

In 2018, Villanova was on another planet. It ran the table, winning its last 11 straight games including the Big East title and an NCAA championship. The Wildcats won all of their postseason games by double-digits, including a metaphorical island cruise through March Madness. Led by Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, the team finished with four 40% or better 3-point shooters.

They have sent nine players to the NBA in recent memory, including former AP and Naismith Player of the Year Jalen Brunson in 2018. More recently, Eric Paschall shined for the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors, including a season-defining 34-point, 13-rebound performance against the Portland Trailblazers in November of last year.

Head Coach Jay Wright

Wright has been outstanding in his tenure with the Wildcats, going 472-182 in his 19 years with the university. He was named in the AP Coach of the Decade in January after winning a pair of National Championships and four Big East conference titles with 16 of the 24 votes, earning the honor over Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari.

Wright is known for his shooting-heavy lineups — Villanova finished with the 12th-most made threes per game in the nation last year. On top of that, of the five players that took 100 or more 3-point attempts last year, four of them hit over 35% from beyond the arc. Overall, 40.6% of its scoring in 2020 came from the three-ball.

The Wildcats did not roster a true center last season — they had three players listed at 6-foot-9 but they were all forwards. Wright has made his living on a transition small-ball and shooters.

Outlook for 2020-21

Villanova could potentially return almost all of its No. 10 AP-ranked 2019-20 roster, with just senior Tim Saunders confirmed to leave due to graduation. Saddiq Bey, its leading-scorer and 3-point shooter from this past season did declare for the NBA draft in early-April, but left the door open to return to school. They have not secured any recruits for the 2020-21 season, but sit-one transfer Caleb Daniels from Tulane will be eligible for the year.

We are going to assume that Bey leaves for the draft in this scenario since he has been mocked to go in the mid-teens by many of the experts. Notably CBSSports.com has him going at No. 14 to the New Orleans Pelicans. If he doesn’t leave, though, Daniels could fill in the sixth-man role for the Wildcats.

Potential Starting 5

Guard Collin Gillespie, Sr.

Gillespie was the Wildcats second-leading scorer this past season, dropping double-digit points in all but four of his 31 games en route to averaging 15.1 points per game on the year. As UConn saw in its January matchup this past season, Gillespie spends a majority of his time behind the 3-point line, but has a solid drive and pull-up game as well.

He took more than half of his team leading 382 field-goal attempts from 3-point land and finished at a solid 35.7% clip. His shooting number have regressed slightly year-over-year as he has shouldered more of the shot load.

Guard Justin Moore, So.

A unanimous Big East All-Freshman team selection, Moore led all Big East rookies in scoring last season with 11.3 points per game. The four-star guard could shoulder some of the scoring load in Bey’s absence. His 39.2% 3-point shooting percentage was second on the team last year, behind Bey’s 45.1%.

Moore will share time with five-star recruit Bryan Antoine, a shooting guard out of New Jersey that played just 87 minutes across 16 games last season due to a major shoulder surgery. Antoine struggled last season after his return, scoring in just five of the games he played.

Guard Caleb Daniels, RS-So.

Now onto an individual UConn is quite familiar with after he dropped 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting on them in 2019. Daniels moved to Villanova after leading the Green Wave in scoring on 2018-19.

The 6-foot-4 guard will also be a nice boost to its front on the glass, which is key for a Villanova side that fielded just two top-20 rebounders in the Big East last season. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels were its lone five-plus rebound per game players last season. In 2019 with Tulane, Daniels grabbed 5.3 per game.

Forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, So.

Alongside Antoine, Robinson-Earl was the crown jewel of the 2019 recruiting class for Wright. He nearly averaged a double-double in his first season and considered becoming Villanova’s first one-and-done in 25 years but ultimately decided to return to school because of potential instability from the coronavirus.

The 6-foot-9 forward started every game for the Wildcats in 2019 en route to a 10.5-point-per-game and 9.4-rebound-per-game season.

Forward Jermaine Samuels, Sr.

On a team with no seniors in the consistent rotation, Samuels and Gillespie had to step up and serve as leaders in the shortened 2019-20 season. Returning for his final year, it’s up to them to lead the Wildcats to the top of the Big East once more.

Samuels is statistically a similar player to Robinson-Earl, without as much production on the glass. He is also a slightly worse shooter than the incoming sophomore.

Other highlights from the last seven seasons