Villanova Basketball: Previewing the freshman class primed to guide the new era

Villanova basketball is entering a new era under head coach Kyle Neptune. While a strong returning core boosts the Wildcats’ floor, a promising freshman class can set a high ceiling.

Few college basketball programs have been as successful as Villanova over the past decade. The Wildcats’ trophy closet includes two national championships (2016 and 2018) and seven of the last eight Big East regular-season titles. However, a changing of the guard recently commenced. Hall of Fame head coach Jay Wright, fresh off his fourth Final Four appearance, elected to retire this offseason. He handed the reins of the thriving Villanova program to longtime assistant Kyle Neptune, who spent this past season at Fordham.

Coach Neptune, 37, exceeded expectations in his one season as Fordham’s head coach but is now entering an entirely different situation. Instead of guiding Fordham’s slow rebuilding project, he is at the helm of a “new blueblood” seeking a reload following major departures. Villanova lost Jermaine Samuels and Collin Gillespie this offseason and Justin Moore’s status for 2022-23 is also up in the air after an Achilles injury. Caleb Daniels, Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon are the main healthy returners from last season’s core.

Yet, despite heavy losses and the need to replace a Hall of Fame head coach, Villanova is still pegged to be a preseason nationally ranked team. The Wildcats are currently projected as the No. 18 overall squad in Heat Check CBB’s way-too-early Top 25. Why? Because Coach Neptune accomplished a very important feat just a week into taking the top job at Villanova by securing reaffirmed commitments from an elite group of freshmen.

Instead of falling into a possible rebuild in Year 1, Neptune executed Wright’s planned reload. The No. 20 overall recruiting class in the country is sticking with the ‘Cats. Now, that three-man class, coupled with a prototype ‘Nova guard coming off a redshirt, will guide the new era in Philly.

Way-too-early Top 25 rankings
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The crown jewel: Cam Whitmore

Every strong recruiting class features one player who stands above the rest. And while setting expectations based on recruiting rankings is a slippery slope, Villanova’s top-rated newcomer feels like a slam dunk to be a collegiate star. Cam Whitmore, a 6-6 wing out of Maryland, heads to Villanova this season as a decorated prospect. The five-star recruit is the third-highest-rated player to ever commit to Villanova per 247Sports. He is also fresh off a tremendous high school career that preceded dominant performances in showcase events.

Whitmore stood out amongst his fellow elite peers at both the Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American Game. He recorded 19 points in each showcase event while also stuffing the stat sheet in other areas. He is a human highlight reel with All-Big East and one-and-done potential (projected No. 11 pick in ESPN’s early 2023 Mock Draft).

Whitmore is one of the most explosive athletes joining college basketball next season. He is a terror in transition with excellent ball-handling and fearlessness when attacking the basket. He defines the term “rim pressure” as an attacking guard. In addition, his blossoming playmaking makes him all the more dangerous off the dribble.

One of the biggest challenges for incoming freshmen is adjusting to the physicality of college basketball. With Whitmore’s strong build and explosive athleticism, though, his game should instantly translate to results. He is expected to immediately join Villanova’s starting lineup alongside Caleb Daniels. With Daniels as a sniper and Whitmore’s slashing ability, the Wildcats will feature an elite wing duo who complement each other.

Whitmore is furthering his status as a member of USA’s FIBA U18 Team this summer as well.

Is Mark Armstrong the heir in the backcourt?

Whitmore is not the only incoming Wildcat taking the court at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship this summer, though. Four-star recruit Mark Armstrong also made the cut and figures to be a major part of Coach Neptune’s rotation next season. He is another plus athlete who can thrive in transition. Villanova tended to play slow under Coach Wright but its tempo sliders might need an adjustment in ‘22-23; Whitmore and Alexander give Villanova one of its most athletic duos in recent memory.

Villanova’s backcourt is arguably its biggest question mark for next season following substantial losses. Two-time Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie’s graduation was the biggest blow. The unforeseen concern revolves around Justin Moore’s health; he tore his Achilles in the Elite Eight last season and his status for 2022-23 is unknown. If he is not able to go for much of the season, Armstrong might not only be thrust into big minutes but a possible starting role.

Armstrong, like Whitmore, will add a significant athleticism to Villanova’s rotation. The 6-3 two-way guard boasts tremendous bounce that looks like he is floating at the rim. He also features a tight handle, can score from outside, and oozes craftiness. While not a pure point guard by trade, Armstrong is showing out as a playmaker thus far at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship, dishing 15 assists to only four turnovers in three games. Considering Villanova’s program reputation for ball movement and security, Armstrong appears ready to fit in.

Br3ndan Haus3n: The next floor-spacer

Whitmore and Alexander provide an athletic punch that could turn heads at Villanova next season. At the Wildcats’ core, though, is a propensity to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. If you’re trying to spot Villanova’s next flamethrowing guard, look no further than incoming freshman Brendan Hausen. A bit of an under-the-radar addition given the hype around Whitmore and Armstrong, Hausen is a four-star recruit in his own right. However, that was not always the case.

The Lone Star native experienced a meteoric rise in recruiting rankings last summer following Nike’s Peach Jam. Hausen made the most 3-pointers of any player at the event (38) while drilling 41 percent of his total attempts. He torched the nets from 3-point range both in catch-and-shoot and off-the-dribble situations while hitting at least five 3-pointers in five of his eight games played. Hausen is one of the best shooters in the 2022 class.

Highlights compiled from clips by Nike EYBL Peach Jam, TexasHoops Television, and Jake Rosen.

Hausen lacks a conscience, and that’s a compliment. He is always ready to let it fly, has elite-level footwork, and is deadeye more often than not. Given Villanova’s reputation with sharpshooting guards, Hausen feels like a perfect fit. He is a long-term, perimeter-spacing addition who can score off the dribble or provide gravity away from the ball. Hausen is at his best as an off-guard and brings quality size at 6-4.

Villanova ranked 17th nationally in 3-point attempt rate last season. Perhaps more importantly, Fordham ranked 62nd in that department under Coach Neptune. The Wildcats will likely look to spray from distance again in 2022-23, and that could open the door for Hausen. Whether his defense is ready will be the big key, but he could play a reserve role in the backcourt. Either way, he should be a big part of the future.

Don’t forget the redshirt hiding in plain sight

The competition for Villanova’s starting backcourt spots this season will be fierce. As long as Moore is sidelined, Caleb Daniels and Jordan Longino are the returners most primed to play minutes. Both are better suited as off-ball guards, though. This possibly opens the door for a freshman — or returner Chris Arcidiacono — to start. Armstrong might be the presumed frontrunner, but don’t forget about the other member of Villanova’s freshman class: Angelo Brizzi.

Brizzi, a top 200 recruit from the 2021 class, redshirted this past season while fully participating in practices. He already has a year in a system that, even with a coaching change, shouldn’t change all that much. He also brings experience playing alongside the returning core. Brizzi fits the mold of a prototypical Villanova guard given his sharpshooting ability and unheralded track record as a recruit. He is a smooth lefty.

Former head coach Jay Wright had this to say about Brizzi:

“Angelo is an outstanding guard who brings a great feel for the game as the son of a coach. He is an excellent shooter who is capable of playing either guard position. We believe Angelo has all the ingredients needed to become a complete Villanova guard. We’re thrilled to welcome Angelo and his great family to Villanova.”

The Wildcats’ backcourt is full of talent but also uncertainty. There is not a proven collegiate point guard in the bunch, and that is something that will need to be figured out quickly. Armstrong is the guard who will receive the most preseason hype due to his recruiting ranking, but Brizzi might be the piece hiding in plain sight ready to play big minutes. As discussed regarding Hausen, Brizzi’s shooting ability could lead to a sizable role given Villanova’s playing style. He wouldn’t be the first sub-150 prospect to excel with the Wildcats in recent years; the last point guard of such a rating went on to win two Big East Player of the Year awards.

Villanova isn’t going away anytime soon

Jay Wright will no longer walk the sidelines of The Finn as head coach. Regardless, though, Villanova isn’t expected to fade. Kyle Neptune is inheriting a strong group of returners, including an all-conference candidate in Caleb Daniels, while also managing to retain each of Villanova’s incoming recruits. Cam Whitmore might only spend one year on campus, but he could be the spark plug of the new era. The engine should continue to hum with the rest of ‘Nova’s 2022 recruiting class.

Whitmore and Armstrong are already proving their abilities on the international stage while playing for Team USA at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship. Through three games, Whitmore is averaging 14.3 points on 74.1 percent shooting while Armstrong is at 8.7 points and 5.0 assists per contest:

The two top-50 recruits are the leading members of Villanova’s recruiting class and have elite-level athleticism. But Villanova basketball wouldn’t be what it is without tremendous floor-spacers. The Wildcats have ranked in the top 130 in both 3-point percentage and attempt rate in each of the last nine seasons. In terms of incumbent sharpshooters to replace the now-departed Collin Gillespie, Villanova’s cupboard is filled thanks to Hausen and Brizzi.

Coach Neptune is set to face the unenviable task of replacing a legend, but the Villanova “brand” remains strong. Neptune’s resume features eight years of experience as an assistant under Coach Wright (two more as the video coordinator) and he also exceeded expectations with Fordham in his lone season as head coach. With this group of talented guards beginning their collegiate careers for him this season as well, the Wildcats appear to be in strong hands both on the sidelines and on the court.