Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 7 Villanova basketball season preview 2021-22

Credit: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

While Villanova basketball says goodbye to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Collin Gillespie and a sturdy supporting cast anchor the Wildcats.

Riley’s Ranking: 11th

Okay, I know what this looks like. You see “Riley’s Ranking” as 11th, and you double check to make sure you saw it right. “Eleven???” You think. “Does this man realize Jay Wright is still the coach? And he gets his Big East Player of the Year point guard back? Surely he can’t still be that upset about 2016, can he?”

Well for one, Wright gets his co-Big East Player of the Year back. (Imagine me saying this similar to how Jim Halpert always says “Assistant to the Regional Manager” to Dwight Schrute.) For two, I let those demons go after North Carolina obtained redemption in 2017.

I am simply hesitant to pencil in ‘Nova as a top-5 team due to the loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The 6-8 big man heavily impacted the Wildcats’ success, and no clear replacement can be found on their roster. Last season, JRE’s savvy in the mid-post provided reliable scoring and passing, and the defense floundered whenever he sat. Sure, Jay Wright still retains plenty of ammunition. But after losing an All-American, it’s fair to temper expectations a little.

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Still, there are plenty of positives for this squad.

Co-Player of the Year jokes aside, Villanova basketball wouldn’t be near the Top 25 without the return of Collin Gillespie. The fifth-year guard ignites the Wildcats’ offense, threatening to score whenever he has the rock. Gillespie’s adeptness at shooting off the bounce commands a ton of attention from defenses …

which, in turn, opens up opportunities for teammates:

Lastly, Gillespie also shoots effectively off the catch — an important skill for a Villanova basketball system that prioritizes ball movement. After making the initial pass, he often gets the ball back off of a reversal. From there, he drains 3s with confidence. One more clip:

Gillespie wasn’t the only Wildcat to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility. Jermaine Samuels also returns to further buoy the perimeter attack. The 6-7 super senior fits the multi-positional, big-wing prototype that has excelled at Villanova under Wright. And last year, he made a sizable leap as a contributor.

From a numbers perspective, Samuels was a paragon of efficiency. In Big East play last season, he ranked 1st in offensive rating, 4th in true-shooting percentage, 5th in free-throw rate, and 16th in assist rate. Most importantly, he boosts ‘Nova’s spacing with both his 3-point shot and his expertise at attacking off the dribble.

Then, there’s junior Justin Moore, who gives the Wildcats one more weapon on the wing. His secondary playmaking creates shots via drive-and-kicks, and his unique ability to post up gives the offense another advantage. In the postseason, Moore even ran the point effectively after Gillespie’s MCL tear.

However, on a less positive note, the versatile guard must regain his shooting stroke from his freshman year. Gone were his silky makes off of dribble-hand-offs and pin-downs last season, as his 3-point percentage plummeted from 39.6 to 31. Villanova can’t afford to have him suffer another slump from distance.

Finally, redshirt senior Caleb Daniels likely fills the last starting spot on the perimeter. In his first season in Philly, the former Tulane guard transitioned smoothly from a high-usage star to an ancillary piece. Now with a year in Wright’s scheme, he should further emerge as one of the conference’s best role players. The thick-framed Daniels elevates Villanova with his tough shot-making and his penchant for getting to the charity stripe.

However, even with this high-octane quartet, ‘Nova faces an unusual amount of uncertainties regarding its perimeter depth. Senior Brandon Slater gives quality minutes as an athletic slasher who also plays stout defense. But beyond him, Wright will rely on a number of guys with little experience. For example, two top-60 freshmen, Trey Patterson and Jordan Longino, will enter the mix in hopes of playing time.

Patterson, who enrolled at Villanova this past spring, flashes a solid handle, deft footwork, and a projectable shot. Despite his youth, the 6-9 forward likely blossoms into a rotation player this year. Longino, a 6-5 bucket-getter, shows off a DEEP bag, getting wherever he wants to on the court. Wright could turn to him for instant offense off the pine, unbridling him as a creator off the bounce. (Also of note: he used “Forgot About Dre” in his high school highlight tape. That won me over.)

Lastly, if Bryan Antoine can make a quick recovery from an offseason knee injury, he will contend for a larger role. The former five-star recruit showed glimmers of life last season, most notably on the defensive end.

So with all that covered, let’s turn back to my main issue of concern: the frontcourt. Villanova needs a big step forward from redshirt sophomore Eric Dixon. The large lefty gave serviceable spot minutes last season, supplying a physical presence in the interior. But with Robinson-Earl gone, he needs to be more than serviceable. The only player behind him in the post is the promising yet unrefined freshman Nnanna Njoku.

Granted, Wright could go super small with Samuels at the 5, but that could compound an already mediocre defense. Since the 2018 championship season, Villanova has finished no higher than 36th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric (compared to four straight top-12 ranks from 2015-2018). They certainly have the length to be competitive on that end. However, they must stay especially disciplined on the perimeter with the projected shaky rim protection.

And yet, even with questionable depth and defense, I can’t knock Villanova basketball too much because of the program prestige. Wright has proven that he can develop pretty much any player that comes under his tutelage, and he always gets his teams to peak in March. If a couple of players break out, a deep tournament run could be in store.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – Collin Gillespie (Gr.); G – Justin Moore (Jr.); G – Caleb Daniels (R-Sr.); F – Jermaine Samuels (Gr.); F – Eric Dixon (R-So.)

Projected bench: G/F – Trey Patterson (R-Fr.); G – Jordan Longino (Fr.); G – Chris Arcidiacono (Jr.), C – Nnanna Njoku (Fr.), G – Bryan Antoine (Jr.)*

Strengths: Shot creation; ball movement; shooting

Weaknesses: Defense; rim protection; depth

Best player: Gillespie

Breakout player: Moore