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UConn men’s basketball 2022-23 opponent preview: Villanova

The Jay Wright era ended with a bang but now it’s over. A new chapter begins in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Villanova vs Kansas Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Fast Facts

Head Coach: Kyle Neptune (first season as head coach)

2021-22 Record: 30-8 (16-4 Big East)

2021-22 Big East finish: Second

Final 2021-22 Ranking: No. 10

2022-23 Big East Coaches Poll Ranking: Third

2022-23 KenPom Rating: No. 20

2021-22 in review

Villanova was one of the best teams in the country last year. The Wildcats finished second in the Big East, somewhat controversially, as they finished one game behind Providence in the loss column, but the Friars missed their road games against Creighton and Seton Hall, as well as their home date with UConn. All three of those schools finished in the top five of the Big East standings. Meanwhile, Villanova played all 20 of its conference contests.

The Wildcats took their lumps early, with November losses to UCLA in a true road game and Purdue in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic, while also scoring just 36 points in the Big East-Big 12 Battle against Baylor and losing by 20 points to Creighton on the road to begin league play. However, Jay Wright’s team also beat Tennessee by 18 and Syracuse by 14, each top-100 opponents and each on a neutral floor.

After that tough loss to Creighton on Dec. 17, something changed with the Wildcats, who stood at 7-4. Villanova won 23 of its next 27, bouncing back to beat Creighton by 30 points two separate times, taking down UConn by 11 points at home, and sweeping Providence. Of the team’s four losses, just one was at home and two were by one possession, including the instant classic against UConn at the XL Center in which Dan Hurley was ejected. The final defeat, to No. 1 Kansas in the Final Four, snapped a nine-game winning streak that included three victories in the Big East Tournament and four more in the NCAA Tournament.

2022-23 preview

Villanova had been a bastion of stability since the new Big East was founded, particularly in the past couple of seasons with Wright on the bench. Last year’s graduate students Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels played many valuable minutes for the Wildcats over the years, including in a national championship as freshmen. However, all three are now gone and former assistant Kyle Neptune has taken over as head coach after one year at Fordham, which finished 16-16 and made a quarterfinal appearance in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament.

While Gillespie and Samuels have departed, the Wildcats are not without some intense firepower worthy of a top-20 preseason ranking. Last year Wright had six players play more than 950 minutes and just three others racked up more than 100. Four of those players will return: Caleb Daniels, Eric Dixon, Justin Moore and Brandon Slater.

Moore was second on the team behind Gillespie in points and assists last season, averaging 14.8 points and 2.3 assists per game. He also contributed 4.8 rebounds per contest, which was good for third on the team despite being just 6-foot-4. Moore will likely miss a good chunk of the start of the season as he returns from a torn right Achilles that he suffered in the Elite Eight, but currently expects to return sometime during conference play.

Daniels shot 37.3 percent from 3-point range and also contributed 10.3 points per night, while Dixon, at 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, provides size and defense, with 18 blocks and 28 steals last year. All four are at least redshirt juniors and battle-tested in Big East play.

Additionally, Wright and Neptune brought in the No. 11 recruiting class according to Rivals, with a trio of four-star recruits. Mark Armstrong will likely play some minutes at point guard right away as a top-50 player, while Brendan Hausen, at 6-foot-5, provides solid height for a 2-guard. Top-10 small forward Cam Whitmore, the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year, rounds out the class and is the highest-ranked player brought in by a Big East school. All three should be able to contribute right away, providing Neptune with the ability to go more than six deep.

Bottom line

With a coaching change and the graduation of one of the most important players in program history, there will always be uncertainty. However, it was clear that Neptune was always going to be next in line. After eight years as an assistant, they sent him to the Bronx to learn how to run his own program at Fordham. In just one season, he exceeded the win total of the previous two years for the Rams. He is as close to a sure thing as you can get in coaching and was able to keep the recruiting class together.

Villanova has a dangerous combination of high-end freshmen and talented upperclassmen, which should help continue the momentum at one of the most successful programs in the country over the past decade, despite the coaching change. Anything short of a top-four finish in the Big East and an NCAA Tournament journey that makes it to the second weekend will be a disappointment for the Wildcats.