The 2018-19 season for Villanova Wildcat fans has been a unique one to be sure. After three years of writing these end of season recaps, I try to find a way to express how I’m feeling about the season now that it’s all said and done. This year, the word I keep coming back to is... mixed.
This season was full of mixed emotions, mixed results, mixed messages, and after watching Saturday’s season finale... a fair amount of mixed drinks. It’s not a completely unexpected outcome, although I’d be lying if I said I could have anticipated all the twists and turns this team took us on. But before we start to appreciate everything that happened this season, we have to begin by acknowledging where it started. No matter how this year played out, it was never going to rival the one that preceded it.
Living In The Shadow Of 2018
There is no debate, the 2018 National Champion Villanova Wildcats are the greatest team this program has ever assembled. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were the most memorable (2016) or the most loved (1985), but they were unquestionably the most talented and dominant team ever to walk the Main Line. They produced a slew of Big 5, Big East, and National awards, culminating in four players being selected in that year’s NBA draft. Very few college teams are capable of reaching those heights, and it may very well stand forever as the best Villanova team of all time.
And that’s what the 2019 season had to follow.
I’m not saying anyone expected this team to have remotely that level of success, but that’s where the conversation around this year had to start. Everything was prefaced with a negative. “They lost 4 players, but look at who they have left.” “They didn’t expect to lose Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, but they have a great class coming in.” They’re the youngest team Villanova has had in years, but they have two 5th year seniors to lead them.” That’s exactly how this “mixed” theme started.
In reflection, it’s both a blessing and a curse. When Nova went through it’s rough patches of consecutive losses this season, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been because they were still the reigning National Champions. Of course on the opposite end of the spectrum, when they won the Big East and the Big East Tournament it was “great for this team” but it wasn’t the highest of highs that fans had experienced just one year prior.
And so fans entered the season tempering expectations for this team to varied degrees based on the previous year’s success. Those expectations of course got further mixed up when the season got turned on its head within the first month.
Turning Expectations Upside-Down... Repeatedly
The Wildcats looked really good against Morgan State and Quinnipiac. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall were the unquestioned leaders we thought they would be. “The Finn” sure was pretty. That’s the complete list of things that went as expected in the first month of the season.
Seriously, November alone indicated that this was going to be an up and down season. Let’s start with the returning players. Dylan Painter was supposed to be an improved role player coming off the bench. Then he started Game 1. Then after only playing 11 minutes over the first three games, including a DNP (Did Not Play) against Michigan, he announced he’d be transferring. And that may have been the least surprising of the personnel surprises.
In that same first month, we saw Collin Gillespie (not a point guard) earn the starting point guard spot over Jahvon Quinerly (5-star point guard). Quinerly (an expected starter) struggled with minutes and production, while Saddiq Bey (an expected red-shirt) proved to be one of the team’s best players and joined the starting rotation by Game 5. Jermaine Samuels started three of the first four games, then averaged just 8 minutes a game for the next four. Brandon Slater burned a possible red shirt with 9 minutes in the first game, and only played 18 minutes total in four of six games for the rest of the month.
The inconsistencies with player performances led to a rotating door with the rotation, and that in turn led to mixed success on the court. There was the back-to-back blow out of Michigan and OT loss to Furman. That was followed by an early tournament title in Orlando over a ranked Florida State, complete with a surprising Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree MVP. The pendulum swung back the other way with back-to-back losses to Penn (first Big 5 loss in 6 years) and on the road to #1 Kansas by just three. Then Nova ripped off 11 consecutive wins including a record 10-0 Big East start. Nova would close out the regular season with just a 3-5 record... to win the Big East Title and set up a run to claim the Big East Tournament Championship. If that’s not a mixed-bag of results, I don’t know what is.
But the biggest test of this season’s expectations was reserved for Jay Wright. He was taking on a number of new challenges that he hadn’t had to deal with during Villanova’s exceptional run in previous years. For the first time since 2014, the majority of his rotation had been with the program for two years or less. For the first time since taking over at Villanova, he was heading into a season with only two players that had played more than 30% of the team’s minutes the previous season. Despite the sophomores and Tim Delaney being on the previous year’s team, only Phil Booth and Eric Paschall had experience as major contributors at Villanova.
It was a situation that would breed inconsistency, and Wright was charged with handling and overcoming it. There were a number of factors, decisions, and players that contributed to the mixed successes of this season, and Wright certainly played a crucial role with all of them. Despite coming off an immensely successful coaching run, fans were not shy about criticizing him for everything from player development to rotation decisions. But in retrospect, a lot of those choices probably boiled down to one thing: preserving Villanova’s culture.
Preserving The Culture
To talk about Villanova’s culture, I think it’s important to start with the seniors. Phil Booth may not be the first player you think of when talking about Villanova’s Championship run over the past five seasons, but he certainly is the connective tissue between it all. None of it happens without him. He’s played more games in a Villanova Jersey than anyone ever has, and possibly ever will. He doesn’t have the stats of all-time greats like Paul Arizin, Ed Pinckney, Kerry Kittles, Randy Foye, Scottie Reynolds, Josh Hart, or Jalen Brunson, but his impact on the program is no less important than any of theirs.
Eric Paschall also deserves a tremendous amount of praise as an embodiment of the foundational pillars of this program. Our own Chris Lane put it best in a tweet, “Eric Paschall quietly redefined Villanova basketball. A do-it-all silent assassin who could do any job asked of him. Straight up beast.” And that just describes what he did for this team on the court.
I say all of that to get to Jay Wright’s telling quote regarding his two senior captains, and what they meant to this team’s performance and this program’s culture. Thanks to our own Eugene Rapay for asking Jay what he said to his Seniors after the game, “Thank you for keeping the culture strong and the tradition alive this season, rather than go in for your own personal glory. On behalf of the whole Villanova community, thank you. On the court or off the court, they were gentlemen and leaders.”
Think back to the end of the 2012 season when Wright made the decision to course-correct the program by finding players that fit what he wanted Villanova’s culture to be and not just ones that were highly recruited. This quote is an extension of that call, and these players aren’t here to be thanked without the culture they helped to entrench in both the fans and future players. That’s how important Villanova’s culture has become.
And so faced with difficult decisions this season, it’s not too hard to see how preserving that culture was the primary focus. Even if there were some unpleasant or possibly limiting outcomes, maintaining what had gotten the program to the top of college basketball was going to be the driving force at every turn.
It started with the early departures of DiVincenzo and Spellman. Wright was looking at essentially an eight man roster that only included four players who had even played one full season of college basketball. He was going to need to augment that, but he also needed to stay true to his culture. That meant not grabbing the best guy, but the right guy. Not accepting just for need, but also finding someone they knew would fit.
The answer on the experience side was grad-transfer Joe Cremo, who committed to Villanova just over a month after their 2018 Championship. The answer on the fit side was former NC State commit Saddiq Bey, who Villanova had been recruiting and was very familiar with. While Cremo may have not produced on the court in the ways fans expected, he was a great culture fit and was quickly able to adopt the Villanova system. Bey became the most impactful member of the freshman class, and will be an important part of Villanova’s success for as long as he’s on campus.
Speaking of freshman success, playing time for the youngest members of the team was another tough decision for Wright and company. In the previous six seasons, the freshman who had significant contributions (50+% of minutes played) in their first season were either coming off of a red shirt season (Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman) or would go on to win Big East Player of the Year (Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson). The next tier of freshman that were more role players (20-50% of minutes played) in their rookie campaigns still got the court time they needed to develop and become key players in Villanova’s dominant run (Daniel Ochefu, Kris Jenkins, Phil Booth, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree). The rest of Nova’s freshman (under 20% of minutes played), have frankly been either hit (Darryl Reynolds, Jermaine Samuels) or miss (Mislav Brzoja, Tim Delaney, Dylan Painter) due to injury or fit. That’s a pretty even distribution of stars, role players, and toss-ups over the years, which is also what makes the minutes distribution this season so odd.
If the above formula proves correct, expect Saddiq Bey to be holding a Big East MVP trophy at some point in the next three seasons. This year he played 73.3% of his possible minutes, the most minutes devoted to any freshman (true or redshirt) since Ryan Arcidiacono in 2013. But Bey seemed to be the only member of his recruiting class to earn the coaching staff’s trust. Jahvon Quinerly (15.7%), Cole Swider (13.8%), and Brandon Slater (3.6%) all fall into the “toss-up” category. Those numbers go down even further when you consider that they’re only counting the games they played in, not the eleven or more games each one of them didn’t play in. Even Swider, who Wright said in a press conference had been the closest to contributing before he was sidelined with a broken hand, only got 17% of the team’s minutes in the games he played in after his return.
Again, Wright sided with the culture of the program. I don’t have any special insight to the team, but to the outside observer it appeared that playing time would be earned by buying into the program and truly understanding the offensive and (more importantly) defensive concepts that Villanova ran. I just can’t imagine that in such a heralded recruiting class, 3 out of the 4 didn’t show the coaches enough in practice and behind the scenes to earn more court time. That said, there were extenuating circumstances surrounding each of those three players. Injuries seemed to curtail Slater’s development early, and then delayed Swider’s progression late. But the case that was simultaneously the most impactful and visible was Jahvon Quinerly.
Quinerly’s talent has never been in question. His quickness and creativity were on display even in the limited minutes he got this season. But buying into the program and understanding its concepts, that’s been in question all year. You know the stories: early struggles, infamous instagrams, and questionable “DNPs” littered through the season all the way through to the final game. Regardless of how good or bad the team performed on the court, the Quinerly question was the underlying theme of the season. Was Jay at fault for not giving him minutes to develop? Was Jahvon at fault for not buying in and picking up the concepts? Only those inside the locker room can say, and even they may need to see what happens next to know for certain. The answer is probably a little bit of both, but I do believe that these decisions were made with the best of intentions for both the player and the program.
At the end of the day, that’s a big part of what Villanova’s culture is all about. It’s a mix of what’s best for the program as a whole as well as the individual players. It’s about having the right attitude from all parties involved to work through the rough times and become stronger for it. But possibly most important for next season, it’s about learning from mistakes. And mistakes... there were a few.
The End, The Aftermath, And Beyond
Ok, let’s get it over and done with. Saturday night was a disaster. Take your pick, because there were plenty of mistakes to go around and no one was blameless. But the biggest problem, as it had been all season for the Wildcats, was the defense. When something that crucial completely collapses in every aspect, the blame needs to start with the coaching staff. To his credit, Jay Wright put the blame squarely on his shoulders and was pretty candid in mapping out the defensive collapse.
“As a staff, we did not get our guys [prepared]. We tried to make them understand [Purdue’s] ability to hit threes and execute their offense with great precision. We just did not have them ready from the start. We just gave up, to a team like that, a lot of threes early. Uncontested threes. And then once you get a great shooting team like that going, and then you’re over aggressive trying to take away those threes. Then they start slipping and they get you on the inside, they get you with offensive rebounds, it became an ugly game. I just thought it began with their ability to get threes and our inability to recognize where their shooters were.”
Of course it wasn’t just the defense, but why continue to criticize players who either won’t be back or have an entire off-season to improve. If that’s what you’re looking for, the comments section of the game recap will surely scratch the itch. But for now, let’s get back to Coach Wright.
Next season Wright will have an even younger team, although he’ll have double the number of players that had significant roles on the team than he had this year. We’ve already seen him make some mistakes with this freshman class, but again Wright has owned them. Last week he said one of the things he learned this season is that just because something worked with Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo in their rookie seasons doesn’t mean that will work for these freshmen. An early misstep in development doesn’t mean these players can’t recover and become key contributors, or even stars. But this recognition on Wright’s part highlights one of his greatest strengths: learning from mistakes and making adjustments.
Every coach makes mistakes, but it’s the elite coaches that learn and grow from them. We’ve seen this at the macro-level, most notably the 2012 course correction in recruiting. We’ve seen this in game, making half-time adjustments and finding ways to get the most out of players. And we’ve seen this in the clutch, like allowing Daniel Ochefu to take over the locker room during the 2016 National Championship halftime. Just like he preaches to his players, Wright is decisive even when those decisions may turn out to be mistakes. But he then owns those mistakes, learns from them, and adapts to make the team better.
It’s frustrating to see this team struggle, but at the same time I’m hopeful that next season will be better given the track record of the coaching staff. That said, my hopes for next year may also be the biggest reason my mixed feelings continue into the offseason. Either that hope will be rewarded by Villanova continuing a five year trend and making the Final Four, or it leaves me vulnerable to watching the team I love struggle through another inconsistent season.
But that season is seven months away, and I’m left with some final thoughts on the one at hand. In the beginning of the year, this team was a bit over-hyped and over rated, which led to the initial letdowns. Watching them take two steps forward and one step back was infuriating at times, and Saturday night’s collapse was ultimately deflating. However, the pros from this season far outweighed the cons.
Jay Wright signed what might become the greatest recruiting class in Villanova history. Collin Gillespie stepped into leadership and position roles that did not fit his skill set because it’s what the team needed from him. Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels, two future stars of this program, took big steps towards realizing their potential. Villanova won its sixth consecutive early season tournament on the shoulders of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, one of the best offensive rebounders the program has had in some time. The Wildcats won their fifth outright Big East Championship in six seasons, and a conference record third consecutive Big East Tournament Title. And of course, we got one more year from Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, whose legacy and achievements will live on at Villanova forever.
Regardless of the mixed emotions we may have about the 2019 season, one sentiment remains the same. It’s a great day to be a Wildcat.