Whether it feels like yesterday or light years away, the Villanova Wildcats are making their return to Mohegan Sun.
Around this time last season, it was the site of Bubbleville and Villanova’s home for more than a week. While they’ll be making a return, it’ll be strange — yet, relieving — to be able to roam around with a bit more freedom.
“It’s kind of weird, hopefully it’ll be more normal this time,” Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, experiencing Mohegan Sun without being directed to go everywhere every second and every step. It’ll be fun, it’ll be nice to be in Connecticut. The venue is really nice.”
“It’s a little freaky to be honest,” Villanova coach Jay Wright added. “Those were some strange times, really strange times. Everybody at Mohegan Sun was so nice to us and efficient with the way they executed those games so well. Given that, it was cold and gray, and we were locked inside and walking around back hallways. We couldn’t go outside and we were there for a long time. Besides the games, I can’t say it was that enjoyable. It wasn’t because of Mohegan Sun’s people, it was just being locked in for days and walking in back hallways, work elevators, it was crazy.”
The ‘Cats will hope for a more enjoyable trip, and a victorious one. They are playing in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic. Villanova opens up against No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. Then, on Sunday, it will play either No. 6 Purdue and No. 18 North Carolina, depending on the result of the game.
“Just came off of a good practice, everybody is good to go,” Wright said. “No matter who we play, we’ve got two really challenging games this weekend, and it’s real exciting. First one is against Tennessee. They are, like a lot of the top teams in the country this year, really experienced, besides their freshman point guard who is still one of the best guards in the SEC even though he’s a freshman. Besides him, a lot of veterans, a lot of experience, they play with great toughness and physicality. We’re looking forward to it.”
Tennessee enters 2-0, with lopsided wins over UT-Martin and East Tennessee State. The Volunteers are highlighted by freshman guard Kennedy Chandler, a five-star prospect coming out of high school. They also have a solid forward tandem in Olivier Nkamhoua and John Fulkerson, as well as solid scoring options in Santiago Vescovi and Justin Powell.
The winner of both games advance to Sunday’s championship game, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET. The consolation match is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.
“They have a great point guard who makes a lot of plays for them, and they’re also well-balanced across the board,” Samuels said of Tennessee. “They have a deep bench, a lot of guys play. They have big men, just a lot of weaponry across the board. We’re looking forward to trying to match that.
“Just trying to play as hard as we can, make plays for each other on both ends. Yeah, we know we’re undersized, but we don’t make that excuse. We don’t look down upon ourselves. We can’t help it. It is what it is, so we just do everything to compete on the glass and compete on the defensive end.”
Bryan Antoine injury update
Originally expected to six weeks since being diagnosed with a patella tendon injury back in early October, it looks like Bryan Antoine will be out for even longer.
“To be very honest, I know we’re still weeks away,” Wright said. “At this point, he just got out onto the court and he’s shooting stationary jump shots on the court. We still got a way to go.”
Big East brotherhood
Villanova sat out in this year’s rotation the Gavitt Games, but the Wildcats were still well in tune with their fellow conference members.
It was a big week for the Big East, who won six of eight of the 2021 Gavitt Games, a stretch highlighted by Marquette’s win over No. 10 Illinois, Seton Hall’s upset of No. 4 Michigan and Xavier knocking down No. 19 Ohio State. Creighton, Providence and DePaul also grinded their way to victory.
“Guys are just proud of the league,” Wright said, alluding to a Big East coaches’ text thread. “We know we’re in a football world, and we’re a basketball conference. We’re proud of it, and we think we have value, but we’re in a football world. We stick together, and we want to be successful and prove our value. Obviously, Big 10 is a big conference, but when we get to compete like that and show well against them, it’s good for our league.”
“It reminds me of the golden years, when Coach Carnesecca, Massimino, Thompson, Boeheim and those guys. I was an assistant, and I remember they were building something new. They competed fiercely, but they also knew they needed each other. It’s obviously a different era, and we compete fiercely, but we know when we separated from the old Big East and the football schools that we needed each other and prove the value of a basketball conference. We do have a unique relationship that way and a unique kind of camaraderie.”