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Villanova Basketball: Three takeaways from the 2K Empire Classic

The first couple of games are in the books.

NCAA Basketball: 2k Empire Classic Championship David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-21 college basketball season is underway. In their first taste of action in over eight months, the Villanova Wildcats managed to pick up a couple of wins and the 2K Empire Classic tournament title.

They opened up the season with a 76-67 win over the Boston College Eagles, where they pulled ahead in the second half.

On Thursday, while it was another fairly close contest, the Wildcats led for most of the game against the Arizona State Sun Devils. They gained some separation in the second half and pushed their lead to as high as 17, holding off Arizona State for an 83-74 win.

Here are three takeaways from Villanova’s time at the 2K Empire Classic.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 2021 NBA Draft selection?

If these first couple of games are an indication of anything, it’s that Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is primed for a big year. Maybe he wasn’t truly ready for the 2020 NBA Draft after his first year, but if he sustains this level or continues to elevate his game, there won’t be any questions or doubts surrounding his readiness for 2021.

While it’s interesting to see what kinds of improvement players make from year-to-year, that freshman-to-sophomore jump is one of the biggest for college athletes, and it looks like Robinson-Earl is making a big leap forward. Aside from being a force down low, he’s demonstrated a much-improved shot. While he flashed glimpses of being a stretch big last year, it looks like he’ll be shooting at an even higher clip. Yes, he can make threes, but the biggest addition is a lights out mid-range jumper.

His ability to score from anywhere on the floor, combined with his athleticism and physicality on the glass will make him difficult to stop. He was named 2K Empire Classic Tournament MVP, the first of many accolades to come his way this season.

Post-redshirt year first impressions

After a year of sitting out and watching from the sidelines, Caleb Daniels and Eric Dixon finally got to make their debuts and step on the court with the Wildcats. While there was excitement to see what the complete team and rotation would look like, there’s already a familiarity with returning players. How did Daniels and Dixon fit in with the other pieces and the team as a whole?

There was a solid amount of hype surrounding Daniels, with whispers of his performance slipping through closed doors at practice last season. Now that he’s had a couple of games, it’s clear to see why. It helps having two years of experience already under his belt, so it’s not like breaking in a freshman, but it looks like he’ll have a big role this season. Daniels appears to be a complete guard that can impact both ends of the floor and a smart one too. According to Wright, he was unsure of who would get the fifth starting spot about a week before Wednesday’s season opener, and we now see that the answer is Daniels. Even when he had early foul trouble against Arizona State in the first half, Wright continued to let him play, showing early trust.

As for Dixon, his physical build and athleticism is impeccable. He moves well on the floor and is strong down low. Dixon only got just under four minutes to play against Boston College, and then eight minutes against Arizona State. It looks like Wright may be starting off slowly with him, or just going with a shorter rotation to begin the season and placing most of the minutes and responsibility on his starters.

Shaking off the rust

With no preseason scrimmages or exhibition games, combined with a limited offseason, there will understandably be some rust. There will also be some overreactions or grounds for added patience.

In the first game against Boston College, it looked like ‘Nova had some trouble with its man-to-man defense, getting torched by one-on-one drives to the basket. The Wildcats struggled to contain quicker and athletic guards. Despite that, they stood tall late in the second half and got some stops and surged late to pull ahead for the win.

There were some concerns for the defense against Arizona State, which had even more dynamic talent and promising freshmen. The Wildcats had their struggles with one-on-ones again, but shut down top scorer Remy Martin and controlled the glass. Even though their three-point shots weren’t falling early and the occasional defensive breakdown, the ‘Cats were able to maintain the lead for most of the game. In the second half, Villanova found its shooting stroke and was much more organized defensively as a team, gaining separation and emerging with the win, although it might have sagged off a bit at the end.

Regardless, the ‘Cats have battled through some early obstacles — a couple of injuries and an upset bid from Boston College and an ice cold first-half shooting performance from beyond the arc against Arizona State — but found ways to win. There’s definite room for improvement, but plenty to like with Villanova standing 2-0.