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The Curious Case of Joe Cremo

Jay Wright’s first grad transfer is in a perplexing predicament.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Villanova Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been a Villanova fan ever since I started following college basketball. I’m in my mid 30’s, so I certainly haven’t seen as much of the Wildcats as some of you reading this. But still, it’s safe to say I’ve seen my fair share of Villanova Basketball.

So when I say I’ve never seen a situation like the one we’re seeing now with Joe Cremo, that carries some weight. I’m not saying I’ve never seen a player like Cremo, he’s actually comparable to a number of players. He’s a spot-up shooter with a good basketball IQ that’s an average defender. No, the strange thing about Joe Cremo is how he’s being treated by the Nova Nation.

There’s No Denying The Slump

Joe Cremo has not gotten much love from the Nova Nation lately. The general consensus in our own comments section seems to be that he should find a seat at the end of the bench and get comfortable in order to make way for more promising prospects like Jahvon Quinerly, Saddiq Bey, and Cole Swider. And I don’t mean they want him further down the rotation, people are calling for him to be benched permanently or until Brandon Slater fouls out. While that take is a bit extreme, it’s not entirely without merit.

Cremo’s offensive statistics have nose-dived since Big 5 play. Outside of the UConn game where basically everyone played well, Cremo has scored just 5 points in 4 games. Even worse, they all came against DePaul. So not only was he scoreless against Kansas, Providence, and St. John’s, he started those last two games while averaging 15 minutes in each. Needless to say, I get why the fan base has been coming down hard on him.

But this criticism hasn’t sat well with me. For every complaint I’ve heard about him, I can point to another player on the team that the fans have treated completely differently. To figure out the root cause of the fan bases’ issues, I figured we could look at these complaints one by one.

Double Standards

Let’s start with the scoring slump. Cremo’s had zero points in three of his last five games, leading to a 3.2 PPG average over that span. Part of the problem is that he just isn’t shooting the ball. In three Big East games he’s attempted just nine shots. During that same stretch, three of his teammates attempted ten or more shots in a single game. You need to shoot your way out of a slump, it doesn’t just go away on its own. It’s why we’ve seen Jay Wright screaming at Cremo to shoot the ball from the sidelines. However, the fan base seems to want to take the opposite approach and just sit him.

But why wasn’t that the case earlier this season when Jermaine Samuels was also in a shooting slump? Sure there were fans that didn’t want him to take threes anymore, but no one wanted him on the bench. They wanted to get him more playing time so that he could continue to develop. And that seems to be the main theme from the “bench Cremo” crowd. Make way for the young players who can develop.

Even when the arguments don’t align with what’s actually happening on the court, the main point seems to be let the younger players play:

  • Argument: Bey needs to start, Cremo’s taking his minutes. Reality: In Cremo’s three Big East starts he’s played a total of 48 minutes. In those same three games Saddiq Bey has played 91 minutes. That’s just 5 minutes short of doubling Cremo’s playing time.
  • Argument: Quinerly facilitates the offense better than Cremo can. Reality: Through three Big East games, Cremo and Quinerly both have 4 assists.
  • Argument: Cremo’s awful on defense and Swider’s been improving. Reality: Cremo’s had the team’s second best Defensive Rating in Big East play, while Swider’s had the worst rating on the team in that same span.
  • Argument: If Cremo isn’t going to hit threes he needs to be benched. Reality: Cremo has the team’s best 3-point shooting % on the season (42.9%), and is shooting 40% from deep over his last four games.

If development is what the fan base is after, why wouldn’t they want Cremo to develop as well? Minute distribution has been a touchy subject this season, but Cremo is the only player who’s played less than 50% of the team’s minutes that fans don’t want to get more playing time. And that’s because the argument for the younger players isn’t just so that they can develop, it’s so that they can develop for next year too.

Expectations and Investment

Joe Cremo wasn’t even known to most Nova fans until May of last year. That means even the most plugged in fans have maybe known about him for seven or eight months. To put that into perspective, Villanova fans have been tracking Class of 2019 recruit Bryan Antoine for years already and he’s still in high school. Bottom line, there wasn’t a ton of time for fans to warm up to the newest Wildcat.

What hasn’t made the transition any easier were the two labels slapped on him before he even walked onto campus: volume scorer and Donte DiVincenzo replacement. He was (and still is) a great shooter and was able to average over 14 PPG for his career at Albany, 17PPG in his final season. People expected those numbers to drop, and this year’s “Wisdom of the Crowds” had fans estimating his production at 8.5 PPG for the Wildcats. But there was always the hope that he could reach the level of last year’s rotation and average double digits. So far he’s at 6.1 PPG on the season.

But the bigger issue that he was never going to overcome was the label of replacing Donte DiVincenzo. I don’t think anyone reasonably thought he could be as good as the reigning Final Four MVP, but that’s the slot he was coming in to fill. At the very least, subconsciously the link was being made between Cremo and DiVincenzo. When the team didn’t live up to its Top 10 pre-season billing, Cremo was one of the “new guys not living up to expectations” that was mentioned every time the media asked “What’s happened to Villanova?”.

The difference between him and the other new guys is that they all have time to develop beyond this season. For Cremo, his Villanova career is over in three months. So it’s not hard to see why the fan base is turning on a guy who they didn’t have much time to get invested in, hasn’t lived up to unfair expectations, and will be gone in three months.

But that’s one of the biggest problems I have with that thinking. It’s not that he’s gone in three months, it’s that he’s STILL HERE for three months. He can still get better for three months. Despite what’s being said in the comments sections, he can help us win games for three months! I’m not calling for him to get more minutes, I actually think playing him 10-20 a game regardless of whether he starts or not is about right. But her certainly doesn’t need to be exiled to the end of the bench. Try watching the St. John’s game again and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Overcoming the Eye Test

Villanova has had some amazing players over the last five years, and they’ve frankly spoiled us rotten. These guys were smooth, deceptively quick, and had jaw dropping athleticism. I would not use any of those adjectives to describe watching Joe Cremo last night. But just because a player’s game doesn’t jump out at you doesn’t mean he isn’t playing smart and effective. Cremo may look a step behind at times and his motions aren’t that of an elite athlete, but he plays a lot better than fans have been giving him credit for.

I went back and re-watched his minutes last night and there’s no denying there’s room for improvement. But right now the “bench Cremo crowd” is locking in on his mistakes and ignoring what he brings to the team. Last night the comment section was quick to point out his back to back missed threes off offensive rebounds. They were both great looks that didn’t drop. Add that to Nova’s slow start and people were scapegoating Cremo as the problem. More than once I saw someone predict he’d have a negative +/- because of his play.

Frankly, I just don’t agree. Villanova was down early because St. John’s couldn’t miss from three. In under four minutes the Red Storm was already 4 of 5 from beyond the arc and had built a 14-2 lead with 16:48 remaining. Cremo wouldn’t come out of the game until the 10:40 TV timeout, so he was still in the game for six minutes after that early onslaught.

Here’s what you don’t remember from those six minutes. During that time, Cremo had two assists. Both were off dribble penetration and kicking out to find open shooters, something we’ve been begging this team to do. On defense, Cremo’s man got off just one shot attempt, going 0-1. Cremo also had a steal, poking the ball out and diving to the ground for the recovery. In total, his defense over that time led to three St. John’s turnovers. And by the time he came out of the game, Villanova had cut the lead from twelve to nine.

Yes, it’s a very small sample size, but the point is those plays didn’t fit the narrative nay-sayers have been creating for Cremo, and so they were either forgotten or brushed off. There’s still plenty to improve on in his game, but Cremo is contributing far more than he’s getting credit for right now. He’s more than just a spot up shooter.

Having the best deep shooting percentage on the team, his defenders are staying close out on the perimeter and closing quickly. Not only does this create tons of space for Booth and Paschall to drive the lane, but it also makes Cremo’s shot fake very effective. He’s been using that to create drive and kick opportunities, and before his slump he was also scoring in the paint. While his defense isn’t perfect, you can see he’s improved significantly on his positioning and picking up the switches. He can still get outmatched athletically, but he’s been doing a better job of forcing his man to beat him in spots where the defense will be able to adjust and help, even cause turnovers. This is not a player you want to keep out of the rotation.

Finding The Happy Medium

The point of all this is to say everyone can do a little bit better here. As fans, we need to actually look at everything a player’s doing and not just hunt for moments that fit a narrative. Cremo needs to shoot the freaking ball when he’s open, along with continuing to learn the system and improve his execution. His teammates, specifically Booth and Paschall, need to kick the ball out off penetration sometimes instead of settling for mid range jumpers or attacking multiple defenders. And Wright needs to find a way to showcase in games whatever Cremo’s doing in practice to earn him a starting spot.

That last one might be the key to all of this. Starting for Villanova isn’t something you just get with seniority or time with the program. If that was the case, Samuels would have been starting over Bey for all of the non-con. It’s something you earn. It requires respect from your teammates, scoring “attitude points” in practice, and earning the trust of the coaching staff. As fans, we don’t see any of that, we just have to trust it’s there. That can be hard to do when the on court production doesn’t match-up.

There’s still a lot of basketball left to play this season, and I’d expect Cremo to come out of this slump sooner than later. It’s great that his defense is improving and that he’s finding other ways to contribute on offense, but this team needs another consistent scorer. He’s not the only one that can fill that role, Gillespie, Quinerly, Bey, Samuels, and Cosby-Roundtree have all shown at least flashes that they’re capable. But none of them are facing the finality of their basketball careers the way Cremo is. He has the experience, the ability, and the motivation to take his game to the next level this season, all he needs is the confidence to do it.

That’s where we come in Nova Nation. Fans should be supporting their players, not telling them to get lost. I may not have convinced you that Cremo’s offense can pull a 180*, but I hope I’ve at least opened your eyes to what he’s actually been doing the last few games. This team is going to need a full nine-man rotation to have post-season success. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be perfect, but they do need to excel in their roles. Cremo isn’t going to be a stud that replaces an NBA talent, but he can be the best role player for the Big East Champions.