Heading into Monday night’s season opener, Kyle Neptune heard it all.
What’s it like to replace Jay Wright? Will things be different? How much will be the same? Are you nervous?
“Not really,” Neptune said. “I get all the hype, first game, Big 5 game, brand new coach’s first game – all that stuff – but going into the game and being part of this program for so long, everyone’s got this unique resolve where all you think about is playing and coaching for each other. When you do that and you think that way, there’s nothing to be nervous about.”
There certainly wasn’t. The Villanova Wildcats took care of business on opening night, going wire-to-wire to defeat the La Salle Explorers by a final score of 81-68.
Villanova was led by Caleb Daniels who finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes. Eric Dixon also looked sharp, tacking on 20 points of his own on 8-of-17 shooting from the field.
“Nothing surprised me about what these guys did,” Neptune said of Daniels and Dixon. “We recruited these guys. Eric was a freakish scorer in high school, and wasn’t in this role early on in his career. Caleb was a good scorer in high school and at Tulane. He played a different role in his first couple years, but we had no doubt with what they do offensively.”
Daniels was the player of the game for the Wildcats out-dueling not only the Explorers, but his facemask as well.
He’s wearing it as a precaution due to a broken nose he sustained in the preseason, but that didn’t appear to be an issue for him. He started strong from beyond the arc, making each of his first four shots from long range en route to a double-double.
“I’m trying my hardest, that’s all I can say,” said Daniels in regards to his mask. Daniels said he will need it for a “few more games, but not sure of the time table just yet.”
Meanwhile, for Dixon, he was assertive in his big game, attempting a career-high 17 shots.
“My teammates found me and I just tried to do what the right play was,” Dixon said.
Neptune appeared to go nine-deep, with nine different players registering at least five minutes of game time. The Wildcats showed flashes of dominance and put on an encouraging display in front of a jam-packed Finneran Pavilion.
“I slept like a baby last night,” said Neptune, and it sure looked like he did. Neptune was as cool as a cucumber all night, very reminiscent of his predecessor Jay Wright.
“We were just playing our hearts out for our teammates and coaches,” Neptune added “I thought we had great practices before the game, we had a great walkthrough this morning … we knew our guys were ready to go so there was nothing to worry about.”
The Wildcats started off strong and did not look back. At the half, Villanova held a commanding 37-23 advantage over La Salle. The second half proved to be more of the same as Villanova came out firing, connecting on five of their first six attempts from beyond the arc. La Salle threatened the Wildcats late, by firing off an 8-0 run with under 10 minutes to go, but ultimately it would not be enough to play Cinderella.
“We knew they were going to make runs,” Neptune said. “We had a couple of lulls throughout the game and that was to be expected. We will go back, watch the film, and learn from this.”
Aside from Dixon and Daniels, Brandon Slater had 12 points and eight rebounds. Jordan Longino chipped in 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, before fouling out. Chris Arcidiacono, who rounded out the starting five, logged five points, four rebounds and one assist through 29 minutes of game time. Mark Armstrong led the bench with six points, making both of this three-point attempts, and dishing out two assists.
“I wouldn’t say there are a lot of differences,” La Salle standout Josh Nickelberry said of Villanova’s transition from Wright to Neptune. “They have the same structure, the same plays, they basically play the same game.”
For La Salle, Nickelberry paced the Explorers with 22 points, six rebounds and two assists. Hassan Drame also had a solid showing, posting 17 points and five rebounds. Khalil Brantley chipped in 11 points and four rebounds.
On the flip side, La Salle head coach Fran Dunphy, was also making his coaching debut at a new school. The longtime coach is now onto his third Big 5 school, after he last coached at Temple from 2006-19. Before that, he was the head coach at Penn for 17 years.
Dunphy said he was “excited to get back out there.” When asked what time he woke up this morning, Dunphy jovially admitted, “it is more like how many times did I wake up this morning.”
Villanova will now turn their attention to the Temple Owls who will be coming off a disappointing three-point loss to Wagner on Monday night. The two Big 5 rivals will meet for the first time since 2020 on Friday night, at the Liacouras Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.