Despite the gloomy atmosphere outside, there was nothing but excitement in “The Finn” as Villanova Basketball fans got their first extended look at the team this morning. The annual Blue/White scrimmage was extra special this season, as many fans were visiting the newly refurbished Pavilion for the first time.
But even more exciting was the first look at the five new players that will suit up for the Wildcats this year. Despite losing four players from last year’s Championship team, Villanova has an even deeper bench this season. They may have to use it too, as it’s clear there will be some growing pains with this team. We’ll get into everything from the stadium to the players as we breakdown Villanova’s Blue/White Scrimmage.
Despite any criticism people may have of the new stadium, it can’t be overstated enough what a tremendous upgrade this facility is from years past. The interior is immaculate, and completely changes the “vibe” you get walking through the doors. It will truly be an enhanced and upgraded game day experience for those lucky enough to snag a ticket.
As for the seating, some interesting notes. The East and West seating is all backed seats, presumably all season ticket holders. The North and South bleachers are benches, but I believe these will also be season ticket holders. The student section is located in front of the South seats and in all four corners of the court. These sections appear to be standing room only, with no benches but rather basically a set of risers. While they weren’t in place today, drawings indicate a small section of these “riser” seats can also go behind the North Basket. Currently, that space is open to allow viewing from what looks like a court-side VIP Lounge under the North bleachers.
All told, I was very happy with the end product. However, the most important aspect will be how people can get tickets. The general consensus from fans seems to be that third party ticket sellers like StubHub or SeatGeek are the way to go, but prices right now seem pretty steep. It will be interesting to see how that plays out once the new building shine wears off and we get into Big East games.
Overall this is still going to be one of the best teams in the country. That said, this won’t be last year’s team. With five new guys, you can see that the team is still building chemistry as the young guys gain confidence in each other and the system. You’ve heard it before, and you’re going to hear it again: this team won’t be tournament ready on day one. In fact, if the season was starting tomorrow, I think only Booth, Paschall, Gillespie, and DCR would be ready.
That said, the season doesn’t start for another month. There’s time for everyone, including those four, to improve. The good news is they’re not starting from the bottom floor. No one looked lost on defense, or like the speed of the game was too much for them to handle. The raw talent of the young players was clearly on display, now it’s just a matter of refining it.
After the game, Wright noted that he’d like to see more intensity on the court from the younger guys. He said they’re getting there, but he’d like them to reach another level before they scrimmage UNC next weekend. If they’re not ready for a team like that, it could be a long day.
Bottom line is this team will get better over time. Younger teams tend to get A LOT better over the course of a season. Wright noted that the last time they had a roster this size, they tried playing everyone a bit with mixed results. They had a lot of regular season wins, but they weren’t “cohesive enough” to find Tournament success. He thinks this team has the make-up and personalities to come together even if they run with an eleven man rotation.
Speaking of the rotation, the idea of a redshirt did come up in the post game press conference. With twelve scholarship players, Wright acknowledged that “there could be” a redshirt. However, he did not mention anyone specifically other than to say Tim Delaney would likely be the twelfth man in an eleven man rotation as they continue to bring him back from injury.
As far as a starting lineup goes, it doesn’t sound like anything is set in stone. Dahmir Cosby-Roundtree speculated after the game that the only two players locked into the starting rotation would be Eric Paschall and Phil Booth.
The scrimmage consisted of five 8-minute games. Free throws were counted automatically outside of the final minute to speed up the game, but in that last minute players would have to take them. During these games the coaches could adjust the score or the clock to simulate end of game situations they wanted to play out. They also rotated players to different teams between each scrimmage to try out different lineups.
For more detail on how the games played out, you can check out my live tweets from earlier. But instead of rehashing all of that here, I’m just going to hand out some overall awards.
MVP: Phil Booth and Eric Paschall
These guys were head and shoulders above the rest of the guys both in confidence and ability. Paschall was doing everything you want a team leader to do. He was rebounding on both ends, heating up from deep, there wasn’t anything he didn’t do well. Booth was creating shots for others, making his own shots, and finishing from everywhere. That includes tying the final game on a three with under six seconds to play. These two are the unquestioned go to guys on this team.
Most Improved: Gillespie, Samuels, and Cosby-Roundtree
Everything Gillespie did well last season, he did even better today. He may have made himself the best perimeter defender on the team, and he’s showing amazing play making ability. Samuels was fantastic when it came to crashing the boards, and wasn’t afraid to let fly with a good looking three point shot that connected often in the later games. DCR also looked much more polished on both ends of the court. He more than held his own on the boards, and showed an expanded set of offensive moves in the post. Oh, and that game tying shot that Booth hit? DCR ended up beating Booth by hitting a game ending free-throw after getting fouled at the buzzer. Even with Booth chirping in his ear and tugging on his jersey right up until the shot.
Most Impressive Newbies: Saddiq Bey and Brandon Slater
Of course in a Jay Wright class that features two heralded recruits like Cole Sider and Jahvon Quinerly, it’s the lesser talked about Bey and Slater that caught your eye on Saturday. Bey is a raw talent with a lot to learn, but he brings a tennacity and aggressiveness to the court. That made him especially effective on the boards today. Slater has an ideal build for a Villanova wing, and showed great touch from behind the arc and finishing through contact at the rim. Wright called him a great utility player, and it’s easy to see why.
It’s never even been a question who the leader of this team would be. Phil Booth is a two time National Champion that has battled through injury and earned the respect of his teammates. Jay Wright describes him as the heart of this team, and that was apparent today. When he wasn’t leading by example on the court, he was talking to his teammates, giving advice, and even getting a laugh from everyone in attendance when he tried to distract DCR on the final free throw of the scrimmage.
Now in his final year on the mainline, Booth is 100% healthy (confirmed post game by Wright) and ready to be “the guy”. Well he was certainly that today. While there was no official scorecard, Booth was likely the leading scorer on the day. He did it at the rim, mid range, and of course from behind the arc. But more than that he also found his teammates for open shots and created plays through his penetration.
If there was anything Wright needed Booth to improve on this season, he said it was his killer instinct. After the scrimmage Wright said “Even though you know you’re ‘the guy’, you still have to do it. You still have to play that way. It’s one of the things we’re working on with him in the preseason, really being aggressive every day. He’s been such a great player for us because he’s willing to play off the ball and willing to let other people get shots and not complain. We need him this year to be aggressive all the time, and I thought he did a good job of that today.”
Paschall also showed that he has the offensive (and defensive) prowess to simply take over a game. “Eric’s stepped that leadership role well, that go-to role,” Wright said after the game. It may have been the most understated comment of the day.
In one of the games, Paschall hit three three pointers to help bring his team back and win. In another, he consistently out-maneuvered his defender under the boards in order to grab offensive rebounds. If he wanted to drive to the basket, no one was going to stop him. This was the finished product many fans dreamed about when the watched highlight film of the transfer coming in for Fordham what seems like so long ago.
For the most part, Wright stayed out of the practice and let his assistants do the coaching. Cremo was one of the few exceptions. Wright joked after the game, “I yelled at him twice to shoot the ball because I thought he had shots he didn’t take. Part of it was he missed some early, and I don’t ever want them to stop shooting. He hasn’t played for us, so he doesn’t know that. He knew it today, I let him know!”
Wright noted that it didn’t look like Cremo was looking for his shot first today, and that’s something they really want to instill in him. The coaching staff sees him as a “shoot first” guy that has the potential to be a really dangerous weapon from behind the arc. Once the defense is forced to come out and protect the line against him, then he can use his dribble to penetrate and score or pass. But today, Cremo looked to be thinking pass first. It wasn’t that he played poorly, it was just a quiet game. I’d expect to see him taking a more aggressive approach as he becomes more comfortable in the system.
Painter started off slow, but got going in the later games. He’s clearly improved his strength and footwork as he was able to create space in the post with much more ease than he did two years ago. Wright even singled Painter out as one of the guys he was impressed with in today’s scrimmage.
That said, there were still times that left me wanting more from the big man. Early on, he seemed to be getting out-worked on the boards by players like Bey, DCR, and Paschall. To his credit, Painter did do a better job attacking the boards in the later games. But that aggression didn’t seem to continue onto the offensive side of the court. Sure he had some good plays, including a put-back dunk. But when he got the ball in the paint or even after an offensive rebound, he never seemed to think of attacking the basket as the first option. He was always thinking kick out first, which would give his defender time to set up and make his shot that much more difficult. I’d expect that to be his biggest area of focus between now and March.
Outside of his play, Painter seemed to be taking a more vocal leadership role with the younger guys. Prior to the first game, Painter was the most experienced player on the White Team. He was the one talking in the huddle, calling out on defense, and encouraging his teammates. That’s the kind of leadership that Wright loves to see from guys that have been in the program.
Tim came off the bench in every game, and based on Wright’s comments that’s a trend that will likely continue. Delaney is the twelfth man in an eleven man rotation, so he’ll likely be relegated to clean up minutes in blow out games. But even knowing that it doesn’t effect his intensity and aggressiveness on the court. Even when Wright acknowledged that they were still bringing him back from injury, he lamented having a player with valuable experience on the bench.
If Booth and Paschall were “the guys” on the court Saturday, Gillespie was “the next guy”. He more than held his own on both ends of the court, spending most of his day going up against Booth and Quinerly. Gillespie was effective when playing the off-ball guard role, but he became downright lethal with the ball in his hands. Not only could he score in bunches when needed, he hit a game tying three at the buzzer in Game 4 to send it to overtime.
But where I was most impressed with Gillespie was on defense. Coming into this season it was thought that Booth would probably be the best defender among the guards, but Gillespie has surely thrown his hat into the ring for that title. He was forcing turnovers, blocking shots, and showing great lateral quickness to stay in front of his man.
I’ll admit that when Jon Rothstein suggested that Gillespie could be in the starting lineup I didn’t agree. But after what I saw today and the number of times the Wright talked about him being a leader, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility. Either way, it’s going to be really hard not to be a fan of Gillespie’s play this season.
Samuels needed a little time to get going in this one, but once he did it was full steam ahead. Wright named him as one of the handful of players he thought had a great game today, and he certainly had some very athletic highlights on both ends of the court.
Samuels has come a long way from the guy that looked lost to start last season. There still were a handful of mental errors today, but they were the kind you like. A few times he found himself out of position because he was being too aggressive on defense, or got a little ambitious when he attacked the basket. But in all of those instances he was showing the decisiveness that was lacking in his game last season.
Samuels showed some good range from deep on offense, as well as an ability to attack the rim if his defender pushed out to the arc. On defense he was aggressive before and after the shot, doing a great job of crashing the boards from the perimeter. After the scrimage Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree commented on his teammates rebounding. “It’s frustrating sometimes. A lot of offensive rebounds, I think I’ll have it and he comes flying in and grabs it.” Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo would be proud. Samuels is going to play a much bigger role this season, and today was a clear indicator of why the coaching staff has been talking him up since he got on campus.
Cosby-Roundtree looked like a starting forward today. He was great on the boards and showed improved footwork in the paint. When I asked him what that would mean to him after the scrimmage, he gave the typical Villanova response. “It would mean the coaches trust me.” He went on to say, “Starting or coming off the bench, it doesn’t really matter to me. As long as I come in and contribute to the team, it doesn’t really matter.”
I don’t know if humble and hungry better describes anyone on this team than DCR. He was the first player warming up on the court by about 15 minutes. He was shooting free throws, a part of his game along with a mid-range jumper that he’s been working on in the off-season. Those extra reps came in handy at the end of the scrimmage, when he was fouled as time expired and went to the line to hit a game winning free throw.
It’s also apparent that he’s been working in the gym this offseason. The sophomore has bulked up quite a bit from last year, and he’ll likely need that new size and strength as he matches up with the opposing team’s most imposing players. But from what we saw today, he’s clearly up for that challenge.
Quinerly has some truly eye-popping skills that make it clear why he was such a highly ranked recruit. He can create space for himself or others with his speed, and also displayed great court vision to find open shooters.
But like all freshmen, there are some areas for improvement. Defensively he’s not to the same level as teammates Gillespie and Booth, and that showed as those two were able to create space and drive against him. Quinerly also had a number of drives to the lane end in blocked shots, something he’ll have to adjust to as help in the paint comes quicker.
That said, his overall offensive game will greatly lessen the losses from last season. He’s not going to be the next Jalen Brunson, but he is primed to be the next great Villanova point guard.
All the hype around Swider has been around how he’s going to be the next great Villanova marksmen. While he did make a few threes today, it wasn’t at the prolific rate that had been promised. Personally, I’m going to chalk this up to an “off” day, because there are two things I saw that made me think the hype is real.
First, his form is fantastic. While some of the shots weren’t falling, they sure looked like they were going to when they left his hand. Combine that with his 6’8” frame and it’s going to be hard to stop him from getting a shot off whenever he wants. That leads me to my second point, he is already showing great shot selection. Swider was letting the shots come to him, even when they weren’t falling. He didn’t force anything, and was always quick to find the better shot if it was available. But when he caught the ball with space behind the arc, he didn’t hesitate to let it fly.
The other thing I really liked about his game was his spacing. It’s almost like an extra sense that allows guys to know how to be in the right place at the right time, and Swider seemed to have that. Not just around the perimeter, but all over the court. He was snagging offensive rebounds, getting open in transition. He just always seemed to know where the ball was going, and that’s a hard skill to teach someone.
If you Mikal Bridges fans were wondering who’s the next lanky wing that could come in and one day become an NBA Lottery pick, Slater’s your guy. Wright tried to lessen expectations for the freshman by explaining he’d missed a week of practice with a medical issue, but that he’s 100% cleared and ready to go now. Well you could have fooled me with some of the athletic highlights he showed off today.
Slater was doing everything offensively. He connected from deep and showed an excellent shooting touch inside the arc as well. But where he truly excelled was slashing to the hoop. With his long arms and slim frame, I could have sworn it WAS Mikal Bridges at some points. Not only did he display a quick first step to create space, but he had a silky touch around the rim and seemed to finish with ease.
This kid took Paschall of the dribble and finished with his offhand like it was nothing, that’s how impressive it was. Defensively he still has some work to do, as Paschall was more than happy to return the favor. But overall he had a very good game, and he was the the first of the freshmen Wright brought up when asked who he thought had a good game.
I don’t think I was more excited about any player after this scrimmage than I was about the potential of Saddiq Bey. I felt the same way about him as I did the first time I saw Paschall three years ago. More than anyone else on the floor today, he attacked the boards and showed an aggressive tenacity on defense. He didn’t let up on offense either, firing open threes and attacking the offensive glass as well.
After the game, Wright commented on his aggressive style of play. “That’s important in our program, and that’s why early he’s been impactful. That’s usually what young guys struggle with, and we’re going to need that. So we’ve been really happy with his commitment to defense and rebounding coming in.”