Youth, youth, youth.
That’s all anyone seems able to notice when looking at how this season’s Villanova team differs from its most immediate handful of predecessors. And you know what, they’re not wrong! Most signs are pointing to two freshmen (Robinson-Earl, Moore/Antoine) and three players with only one season starting under their belts(Gillespie, Samuels, Bey) making up the starting lineup for this team. And it’s true that the absence of battle-hardened vets like Phil Booth and Eric Paschall - not to mention the four guys who left the program a year earlier - is going to present an immediate and persistent challenge Jay Wright and his staff will need to navigate throughout the 2019-20 season.
The flaw in this tunnel-visioned focus on age is the misconception that it will manifest itself as the most noticeable new feature of this roster. After all, not all freshmen are created equal. Antoine, Moore, Robinson-Earl, and Dixon all at this point have years under their belts of playing against the best competition available in pressure-packed atmospheres, which should help them somewhat in the adjustment to the collegiate game. I’m not arguing this team won’t provide its share of groan-inducing youthful mistakes as they become more comfortable in Villanova’s nuanced offensive and defensive systems, just that these mistakes will remind us more of Saddiq Bey’s freshman year than Jermaine Samuels’.
What change will we notice the most then, you ask? Each of the past three seasons, the ‘Cats offense has been driven by a dynamic perimeter offensive force everyone knew was in charge - fans, teammates, opponents - everyone. in 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively, Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, and Phil Booth each produced usage rates of at least 26% percent, and were the only members of their teams rated as “major contributors” (players with a usage rate of >24% by KenPom.com). In all three cases, this player was capable of thriving within Jay Wright’s offensive system that demanded extensive ball-movement, but could and were often required to produce moments of individual brilliance when called upon.
Saying this could look foolish a year from now(I hope it does!), but this year’s roster likely doesn’t have that guy. Collin Gillespie - who will get most of the opportunities in this role, at least early on - just doesn’t possess the athleticism necessary to create his own shot on demand. Saddiq Bey should get chances in this role throughout the season as he did late on as a freshman, but barring an extraordinary jump, his on-ball skills likely need another year to catch up to the athleticism he definitely does possess. Jermaine Samuels has cemented himself as a key player within the program, but despite the highlight plays he produces on both ends of the floor Big Game Jermaine is obviously better-suited to life as far from complex decision making as possible. As a freshman, Bryan Antoine has the pedigree to at least take on the challenge of the role, but he’s currently recovering from rotator cuff surgery and is not expected to return until the beginning of conference play at the earliest. On top of the late start his rehab will force upon him, even the most perfect recoveries from rotator cuff surgery are tough to come back from on the fly.
From whatever point in the season the coaching staff realizes they don’t have this guy at their disposal, the look of the offense could go in either of two directions. Firstly and in my opinion the more likely of the two options, Wright has his team share the ball more than we have seen in any season since 2016. That year, no player averaged more than 15.5 points or 4.2 assists, and six players had usage rates between 20-24%. Just to make it clear, this is in no way me claiming that the players on this roster are as good right now as the players on the Championship team in 2016. However, it is extremely possible that after a few weeks of non-conference games where Gillespie is given the chance to make this offense his own, we see a system emerge where a combination of him, Bey, Antoine, Samuels, and others share ownership of a system that emphasizes playing within the flow of the system and when necessary deferring to whoever has the hot hand, while Robinson-Earl and Cosby-Roundtree get reasonable touches serving as roll-men.
A second option - which I think is more interesting with the group of players Wright has available to him - is to maximize the elite young talent at the program’s disposal as was done four years ago when Jalen Brunson arrived on the Main Line and jumped right into the starting lineup. And as our own Chris Lane pointed out, another five-star prospect with a similar pedigree to Brunson set to enter the program this Fall is generating a lot of buzz.
You know who else tore up an international tournament before starting as a freshmen for Nova? https://t.co/87moK6EfGE— Chris Lane (@chrisjjlane) July 6, 2019
The big difference, however, is that the hype this year is rightfully surrounding a post player in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. But like Omari Spellman a couple years ago, JRE is not a limited rim-runner/shot-blocker in the mold of a Yarou, Ochefu or Cosby-Roundtree. And not only is the recent high school national champion at least in the same neighborhood skill-wise as Spellman, he’s gifted with a much more natural athleticism with which to make plays happen on or off the ball. Even against elite competition in the McDonald’s All-American game, these skills were readily apparent. Feel free to watch this whole video, but the various facets of his game are handily apparent between 0:56 and 1:30 in the video.
If Wright and his coaching staff decide to go in this direction, we could see an offensive gameplan built around playing out of the post through Robinson-Earl. If you want a handy modern-day visualization, think of how the Denver Nuggets play through Nikola Jokic, feeding their big touches all over the half-court and asking him to play essentially as a point-center. This sort of system would not only rely on Robinson-Earl to demonstrate elite scoring, passing and decision-making skills on offense on a regular basis that he’s already flashed at lower levels, it would also require enough of an ability as a rim-protector on defense to allow Wright to surround him with four perimeter shooters the majority of the time instead of playing him with another big like Cosby-Roundtree. Take all performance at lower levels with a grain of salt, but all signs available indicate he is up to the task. And if there is a learning curve to scale, well... that’s what the non-conference cupcakes are for. Plus, he’ll have help from shot-blocker extraordinaire Jermaine Samuels while he grows into his role. Jermaine Samuels as the steady guiding hand... ah, the passage of time.
That’s not to say this approach is foolproof - Robinson-Earl will have to put the work in on whatever ShackFit regime he’s put on until and throughout the season to get ready for the grind that is facing up against the big-men of the Big East. In the case that JRE cannot anchor a defense on his own, this approach would likely prove unsustainable on the defensive end, and the coaching staff would have to implement it situationally throughout games, if at all.
But look, sometimes the best decisions come out of taking risks - just look at Jay Wright’s choice to start a four-guard lineup in the 2005 Sweet Sixteen against UNC after Curtis Sumpter went down with a torn ACL. The idea of an egalitarian offense is great as long as the guys sharing the ball include Arcidiacono, Brunson, and Booth and Hart, who that year accumulated a unanimous Big East All-Freshman selection, a unanimous All-Big East selection, a second team All-Big East selection, and a 20-point performance in the national championship game against UNC that we would all remember for how insane it was if not for the clutchest ever moment in a tournament final flying from the fingers of a fifth guy!
But with a roster made up of guys who will likely grade out between “good” and “very good” - but not “great” - as this season progresses, a team needs to know who’s turn it is to take over when the big moments come calling. That’s why it’s the Myles Powell show at Seton Hall and the Markus Howard show at Marquette, even before the Hauser brothers realized they were in for another year of it and jumped ship. But the ‘Cats don’t have a dynamic guard in the mold of those two to look to, so it’s time to turn to a solution inside, at least for enough time to see if it could work.
And to those of who who says there is no way Villanova ever goes away from the perimeter-based identity born out of that decision Wright made up against the odds versus UNC that has earned Villanova its title as “Guard-U,” remember that while there’s no doubt Wright has a tendency to put an emphasis on backcourt play, he is more than willing to mix it up when the roster demands it, and you don’t need to go any further back than the 2012-13 season to see it. Wright’s program was still reeling from post-Final Four recruiting decisions(sound familiar, JellyFam?), and young guards freshman Ryan Arcidiacono and sophomore Darren Hilliard were not quite ready to run the show(hmm...). Faced with this problem, Wright turned to sophomore post-player JayVaughn Pinkston as his man instead. Although he played exclusively next to another big in Mouphtaou Yarou or Daniel Ochefu, Pinkston played a big-man’s offensive game, and put up a usage rate of 28.6% while doing it. He also showed an intent as a playmaker, although with more turnovers than assists perhaps he shouldn’t have tried so hard. But with all due respect, Robinson-Earl is leagues more talented on the offensive end than Pinkston ever was, and the guys around him would likely edge out Pinkston’s supporting cast as well. If Wright gives JRE the freedom to explore the limits of his game as a scorer and a distributer, this could turn out one of the most uniquely fun seasons of Villanova Basketball we’ve seen in a while.