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Loaded with experienced returners, Villanova hopes to fulfill high expectations

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At times the hype is so big, it feels like coronavirus is the only thing stopping these ‘Cats.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Although we’ll never get a chance to see what Saddiq Bey can do as the leading man at the Big East and NCAA Tournaments, the Villanova Wildcats are running it back this year with virtually everyone else, including some new additions that are now free from their redshirt year or fully healed from injury.

The hype for the 2020-21 Wildcats was already there, possibly even before coronavirus put last season to a halt. Since then, the hype has grown exponentially. The ‘Cats have appeared in a variety of preseason top 10 lists, with individual standout players also receiving some added accolades.

At Big East Media Day, Villanova was tabbed the top team in the conference entering the season, and Collin Gillespie, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Justin Moore received preseason All-Big East honors.

“I hope they live out these predictions, it’d be really nice,” head coach Jay Wright said, laughing. “I hope we live out the predictions too, that’d be really cool. As we all know, there’s a lot of work to do.”

As a coach that treasures experience and veteran leadership, he couldn’t downplay his team’s strengths for the upcoming season.

“I really like our experience,” Wright said. “We’ve had a couple years here where we haven’t had the experience that we’re used to, like last year, not having any seniors. Now, (we’re) having three seniors and guys who played last year, and our depth. I think our depth is part of our experience. Having freshmen like Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore who have played and are now coming into their sophomore year, probably will give us the deepest team we’ve had in a while.”

Other coaches have already taken note.

“I think Villanova is the best team in college basketball, with Gillespie and some of the younger guys they have,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “I think they’re top-to-bottom very good.”

Last year, the ‘Cats finished 24-7 and earned a share of the Big East regular season title, which they split with the Seton Hall Pirates and the Creighton Bluejays. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, they’re hoping they’ll get a chance to even reach the end of the season, let alone set foot onto the court for a game. One thing’s for certain, Wright is thankful that he had an experienced roster that was able to handle an offseason like no other.

“I’ve thought about if we were going through what we’ve gone through this offseason with our team last year, it really would be disastrous,” Wright said. “I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. If you remember how we started the season last year, going into Ohio State and just getting hammered and just not being a good basketball team early in the year. We’ve got a lot of challenges this offseason, and everyone’s had them, but I’m hoping that this group with their experience can handle all the challenges of this season. There’s going to be a lot of them, and everyone is going to have to deal with them.”

Between practice plans shifting to a more day-by-day or week-by-week basis, and the college basketball schedule coming out in pieces, flexibility is a must. Outside of that, Villanova has already dealt with some of its own challenges in the form of COVID-19 hitting close to home and shutting down team activities for three weeks.

“It was difficult for us at first, when we found out, because we just got back into the swing of things and just got back to school,” Collin Gillespie said. “We were excited to get going, but unfortunately we got shutdown for a few weeks. Guys went home, it was a couple weeks of rest and trying to stay in shape as best as we can — running, lifting weights, whatever you can. Now, we’re getting back in the swing of things again. We’re taking it one day at a time just following any protocols and safety measures that we have to be able to play.”

With the hype so grand, just like last March, at times it feels like COVID-19 is the only thing stopping the ‘Cats or the college basketball season. After already putting up with a shutdown once, the ‘Cats are grateful that it didn’t happen with regular season games at stake, but Gillespie isn’t going to let the weight of uncertainty get to him.

“The uncertainty that this year brings is hard on everyone,” Gillespie said. “Everyone has to deal with the same things. Nobody has an advantage over anybody else because it’s bigger than basketball. This pandemic is throughout the country.

“It’s tough to deal with, being away for two weeks, away from the game, your teammates, your coaches. At some point, everyone is going to have to go through it. It’s just who can maintain that mental toughness to be able to be locked into your teammates and be as safe as you can just to try to get through the year and get through as many games as you can.”

For now, the ‘Cats are looking to ignore the buzz surrounding their team and gear up for a regular season schedule that’s mostly going to be Big East-based, outside of some key non-conference games like the Big 5, Virginia, Empire Classic, and the not-yet-scheduled Big 12-Big East series. The familiarity within the conference will be helpful, but it’s also that reason that Wright knows it won’t be easy and that preseason praise doesn’t necessarily guarantee trophies.

“I think nationally that’s what people talk about, Creighton and Villanova, because they follow what they see nationally at the end of the year” Wright said. “But I don’t think anybody in the Big East is talking about that, because we all know. Seton Hall is still gonna be a really good team, and we all ended up tied last year. Providence was one game back. You add UConn, we played them at home and it was like a 1-2 point game. Then you look at the way DePaul was playing in the end, winning in the (Big East) Tournament. We all know what this league is.

“Everyone in our league, we’re not being politically correct when we say anyone can win this. Every night is a battle, look at the history. I do think people are starting to nationally learn about the Big East, how good all these teams are, especially if you look at what our teams did last season out-of-conference. I think is up for grabs as it is every year.”