A new season, a fresh start, and plenty of new faces and names to know – the Villanova Wildcats are ready to tip off the new season and turn the page after a frustrating up-and-down season that ultimately ended with an opening round loss in the NIT.
Coach Kyle Neptune and his team have been hard at work this offseason, and they’ve also been busy assembling Villanova’s new-look roster, which includes five new players, including four transfers – Tyler Burton, Hakim Hart, Lance Ware and T.J. Bamba – the most in Wildcat history.
While there are many new changes, Neptune hasn’t changed the program’s philosophy or recruiting approach.
“I think for a long time here at Villanova, we have prided ourselves on having a good culture, and one thing we do during the recruiting process is educate each person on what the culture is so they hopefully choose us for us,” Neptune said.
Since four out of the five new transfers are seasoned stars and are used to being the frontrunners and leading men on their previous teams, fans are wondering how they will mesh with Villanova’s long-time superstars.
Villanova’s basketball program has always prided itself on preaching the importance of having a positive attitude and being a competitive team player, which were important traits to look out for during the recruiting process, Neptune says.
“You know, we have good guys, and I think part of that is they’ve all been places, they all have success at the highest level, and they all know what it takes and the commitment it takes to be a team,” Villanova’s Eric Dixon said. “My favorite memory from this summer was showing up to New York to train with my teammate, TJ Bamba, because most of the other guys are local, so it was different.”
Burton comes to Villanova after setting numerous records and departing Richmond as one of its all-time leading scorers and rebounders. Bamba left Washington State after a breakout season in hopes to be best prepared for the NBA Draft one day.
Meanwhile, Hart has been an experienced player with plenty of games under his belt at Maryland. Lance Ware might not have the stats or game experience as some of the other guys, but his athleticism and positive presence were applauded by his former coach, John Calipari.
Although they all left their former schools for different reasons, they’ve come to Villanova with one goal in mind: to win as a Wildcat.
It’s helped them blend in with the returning Wildcats, who have returned healthy, renewed and improved.
“As a team, [we worked on] our chemistry and trying to bond as quick as possible for the season,” Villanova’s Justin Moore said. “ I think the players who have played for one or two years already, like Mark Armstrong, Jordan Longino, Brendan Hausen, them three have taken huge jumps.”
Justin Moore and Eric Dixon, the elder statesmen of the team, recently earned Preseason All-Big East honors. Meanwhile, the younger ‘Cats, like Armstrong, Longino, Hausen and Nnanna Njoku are looking to take a big step forward.
“I’m ready to get this started,” Moore said. “It’s fun having a lot of new guys on the team that we can learn from and help you get better as well. Returning guys — seeing them make those jumps and leaps have been fun.”
Villanova even has some “new” coaches, in welcoming back Baker Dunleavy and Ashley Howard, former assistants who each had a piece in their recent national championship runs.
They’re back on the Main Line after head coaching stints at other schools.
“One thing that’s helped our staff this year is we have guys in like Ashley Howard, Baker Dunleavy, those guys had a lot of success here and have seen the mountaintop,” Neptune said. “Those guys have really helped shouldering the burden of coaching in this era and pushing the guys.”
The ‘Cats have remained hush-hush with how the new pieces will be worked into the rotation alongside the returners, adding to the anticipation for the season to begin and how the starting five and minutes distribution will shake out.
“I think we have a long way to go, but I like where we’re at right now,” Neptune said. “Any start of the season, you just gotta build. Build your habits, your togetherness, guys gotta learn how to play with each other. It’s just a growth process, no matter what, even if you have 9-10 guys back.
“Every year is different. Even if you bring exactly the same team. Everyone’s goals and dreams are different. This year is a brand new year. We haven’t talked about last year since the season was over. We’re just trying to build the best thing we can by the end of the season.”
The first real step starts with the season opener against American on Monday, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. ET.