Walking into the Cats’ annual preseason media day held in the newly renovated pavilion, there was a distinctly different dynamic than in media events from years past. Jay Wright was in the new press room with the customary gaggle that follows his every move, per usual.
On the court, however, where the roster was spread along the perimeter of the court waiting for questions, only two Wildcats were remotely crowded around or consistently busy. In losing four of their top six rotation players in one fell swoop, the Wildcats are moving through an adjustment period where they not only have to find a way to replace in-game production, but also the leadership those veteran players brought to every game, practice, and even all of the trivial media interactions.
First and foremost, as the two seniors on the roster—as well as the media’s two main persons of interest—Eric Paschall and Phil Booth should and will emerge as the most vocal and visible leaders on the team this season. Booth is experienced as the one captain returning from the 2017-18 team, and Jay Wright believes Paschall’s development within the program last year has prepared him for an official leadership role this season.
“It was really interesting last year in the BIG EAST Tournament, Eric started to step up as our defensive leader,” he explained.
Wright believes the fact both Booth and Paschall are fifth-year players also will provide an invaluable boost to his squad’s leadership core, saying, “you sat out a year so you have a unique appreciation, and they know it’s their last year.”
“One of the things we try to do every summer is establish the leaders and teach the leaders how to be leaders,” Wright said. “The good thing is I didn’t have to do that this summer because Phil and Eric are so well-respected and they’ve been leaders, so that helped. Then, the leaders and our staff have to integrate young guys to the core values of our program.”
He continued: “Not learning the plays, but understanding how to practice hard, how to compete everyday. How to be committed as a college student-athlete. I know it sounds corny, but if you don’t learn how to handle everyday first, whatever you teach X’s and O’s doesn’t matter. You’re going to have a good day, bad day, play hard one day, then take a day off. We wanted to establish those core values in the summer.”
Players of course view leadership from their teammates a little differently than Wright does, given he has been shepherding classes of Wildcats players virtually as long as some of the players on the roster have been alive. And the more idle players at this media day only had rave reviews as they watched their captains have an almost magnetic effect on the media.
Brandon Slater, brand new to the program this year as a freshman, stressed how important the seniors’ leadership has been for him as he gets up to speed in the program, explaining “they know what coach wants us to do, and they’re really good at showing us what to do.”
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, on the other hand, highlighted the flipside of the mentorship role the seniors have taken by highlighting how good a job they have done in “holding the team accountable.”
Cosby-Roundtree also made sure to laud them on their willingness to take constructive criticism from their younger teammates. The ability to strike the balance between commanding authority while also helping the team along and cooperating on an equal footing will prove vital to the two elder statesmen as they attempt to guide the team towards another successful season.
Among the younger group on the roster, Wright, Slater, and Cosby-Roundtree were synchronous in pointing to sophomore guard Collin Gillespie as third on the totem-pole of leadership.
Cosby-Roundtree pointed to how Gillespie “is talking to everybody, telling everybody to pick it up.”
Gillespie is often compared, jokingly and seriously, to Ryan Arcidiacono, but it is striking how similar this comparison is to how Jay Wright describes what he misses most from Jalen Brunson in the program from the time he was a young player.
This natural replacement of someone whose easiness in buzzing around getting on and encouraging anyone and everyone was one of the trademarks of the most successful era of Villanova basketball could make the transition between eras that much easier.
As the seniors draw the majority of the attention from both opposing defenses and spectators’ eyes, their younger teammates have space to breathe and learn while Gillespie uses the probably limited time he has left away from the limelight to focus on buzzing around, driving this team forward like his point guard predecessors, looking to mold the 2017-18 season into another successful one for the ‘Cats.