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No seniors, no problems? Villanova’s junior class embraces leadership role

With no seniors on the roster, the Wildcats will look to their experienced trio of juniors for leadership.

Eugene Rapay/VU Hoops

For a team that treasures senior leadership and veteran presences, it’s a bit strange not seeing Jay Wright’s team not have any four-year players or seniors on its roster.

It’s like pizza without the sauce, a cheesesteak minus the steak, or a burger missing the patty. It just doesn’t look or feel right.

That veteran presence has been an integral piece to Wright’s squads, especially in the recent run of success over the last few years. With a pair of national championships, four Big East Tournament titles, and hundreds of wins in between, the Wildcats usually had solid continuity and an arsenal of successful four-year players.

Granted, the 2018 National Championship squad technically didn’t have any seniors, but it did have Mikal Bridges, who was in the system for four years because of a redshirt year when he first arrived. It also helped that Bridges, National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, as well as Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo, were all selected in a program record-breaking draft night.

With this year’s ‘Cats being younger than usual, it has even swayed some coaches in the Big East to believe that they will finally get dethroned, according to a preseason conference poll.

In the absence of seniors, Wright is looking to his junior trio of Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and Jermaine Samuels to lead the way. It’s an adjustment they’re still getting used to, but one they’re embracing with open arms.

“New guys have to step up,” Gillespie said. “Me, Jermaine, Dada, have all taken that role on. I’m comfortable with it. I’ve kind of done it my entire life, just trying to be a leader on and off the court, helping the younger guys with whatever they need. It’s difficult to come to college. You have to learn a lot, experience different things, so I think it’s going pretty well so far.”

Samuels echoed the same sentiments.

“I feel like I’m ready after learning from Mikal and Jalen, then Phil and Eric last year, and knowing what it takes to be a Villanova basketball player and Villanova leader,” he said. “The overall focus in practice is just trying to get better, just trying to gel. Make sure that everything is in order as far as what needs to be done and compete at the highest level.”

In their first two years at Villanova, the junior trio had gotten to experience the highs and lows of March Madness. They came in and was part of a national championship winning team, experiencing the highest peak of college basketball as freshmen.

The following year, after a few early bruises in the season, ‘Nova got back on track and eventually won another Big East regular season and tournament title. However, in the NCAA Tournament, they felt the harsh reality of March in a second round loss. Not everyone gets to hold up the trophy at the end of the year and only one out of 353 teams gets to have a happy ending.

As sophomores, Wright had deemed them the X-Factors, depended on to provide support for Booth and Paschall. This year, it’s all magnified, but the contrasting experiences from the last two years have shaped them.

“Every single detail matters, but especially when you’re a leader,” Cosby-Roundtree said. “The littlest of things can have an impact on somebody, so just knowing how to be more responsible with it...Our coaches hold a high standard to us so that we can set the standard for the younger guys coming in.”

Although a younger team than the last few years, Gillespie, Samuels, and Cosby-Roundtree have said that there aren’t any hitches with the six newcomers (five freshmen and one transfer) and that they are all buying in so far and immersing themselves within the program’s culture.

They identified sophomore Brandon Slater and freshman Justin Moore as players that can surprise some people this season.

While there doesn’t seem to be any problems in preseason, Wright anticipates some challenges once the regular season tips off. He’s curious to see how the new players adapt and the returning ones step up. Last season taught him patience, especially earlier in the year, and that’s something he plans on bringing with him into the 2019-20 campaign.

“We have to first develop a defensive identity that is missing when you have young guys,” Wright said of the tasks that come with a younger team. “...We’re not going to be great defensively at the beginning, but by the end, that’s what we’re working on. The chemistry--you have guys out there that haven’t played a lot together. When you had Phil Booth and Eric Paschall last year, it was such a great advantage for us.”

He added, “They were both fifth-year seniors, they had played together in a ton of games, Final Fours, Big East Championships, they had seen it all. We really don’t have those guys, and they did it together. We have to build that chemistry too.”

With five incoming freshmen, each part of a loaded recruiting class—one of Wright’s highest-rated since coming to Villanova—he acknowledges they will likely see more playing time than first-year Wildcats typically receive due to roster composition.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Bryan Antoine were both five-star prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans. Justin Moore and Eric Dixon are both four-star recruits. Chris Arcidiacono enters as a three-star recruit, but had shown flashes of possibly being another under-the-radar type of player like Gillespie was, dialing up a 51-point outing in a playoff win over historic Lower Merion and racking up over 1,400 points at Neshaminy.

“When you have pumped up, hyped up freshmen, it’s kind of difficult for them to live up to the hype,” Wright said. “I always tell the guys, if not for the hype, people won’t watch us. Don’t complain about the hype, just understand it is what it is. Now you have to go prove yourself and don’t judge yourself based on that hype, but they are a good group. They will play more for us than freshmen normally do, given our roster makeup.”

With the season less than a month away, we’ll have to wait and see what rotations look like and how the team performs. The ceiling remains quite high, given the potential of the younger players, but be prepared for some growing pains early, as the team seeks to create and build chemistry.

“I think by the end of the year, we have a chance to be a really good team,” Wright said. “Early--we could be ugly early.”