The 2021 season ended on a strange note. When Collin Gillespie went down and we stumbled into the NCAA tournament as a 5 seed, there was plenty to be concerned about. But the team rallied through the first weekend to a Sweet 16 berth, and fell to eventual champion Baylor in a hard-fought game.
A week after the Bears cut down the nets, Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels announced they would be returning for a fifth year — which changed everything about the expectations of this year’s group. A team thought to be young and inexperienced became a bonafide national title contender overnight.
So here we are — six months, a successful MCL surgery, a gold medal and a Hall of Fame induction later — counting down the hours until the 2021-2022 season. As I’ve flipped the switch to ‘Nova basketball, there are five main storylines I’m looking out for:
Seemingly every offseason there is plenty of chatter regarding the health of the roster. And this summer has been no different. There is a lot to unpack, so let’s run through what we know and how concerned we think we should be:
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree: Unfortunately for DaDa, a few weeks back we received the news that might not have been all that surprising, but was devastating nonetheless. Leg injuries have plagued him the past few seasons and his Villanova basketball career is over. He has been removed from the roster, but will remain with the team in an off-court role. He will retire from basketball a national champion; thank you Dhamir for a great career and for being an excellent representation of what a Villanova basketball player should be.
Collin Gillespie: The 2021 co-Big East player of the year is back for more, after going down with a torn MCL in the regular season finale against Creighton. Collin was cleared for all basketball activities at the end of August, just a few months after undergoing surgery. From all accounts it sounds like he is back to his normal self on the floor, although he has been wearing a massive brace. This injury is clearly the most important one to monitor, as this team probably only goes as far as a healthy Gillespie can take them.
Bryan Antoine: Another really tough break for the junior guard occurred on October 4th when Antoine suffered a patella tendon injury in practice. He’s expected to be sidelined six weeks with this one, which means he’ll miss the first few weeks of the regular season at minimum. This was supposed to be the first year BA came into the start of the year healthy after battling shoulder injuries his first two years on campus. It’s been a bumpy road, but he showed some flashes in limited minutes last year that lead me to believe if he can get healthy he can be a contributor for this year’s squad.
Nnanna Njoku suffered a concussion over the summer, and has reportedly struggled with dehydration issues. Very unfortunate to hear as the freshman will likely be relied upon early. A Jermaine Samuels finger surgery, along with a Justin Moore concussion round out the injury list for the summer. But the two sure-thing starters should be ready to go as the team prepares for the season opener.
This year’s team - as Jay’s best teams always do - has plenty of backcourt experience. The exciting part about this particular lineup, though, is the depth. They figure to go at least two deep at all three guard spots. But what I’m really curious about is how the frontcourt minutes are going to be allocated.
Eric Dixon is no doubt a major key this year. He is the only returning true big man on the roster. Last season, Dixon played more and more as the season went on and generally did good things. At 6’8 and 255 lbs, he is a lot to handle in the paint despite being undersized for a traditional “center”. He rebounded well and did a pretty good job spelling JRE on the block defensively. Word is his outside shot has looked good this summer, but I’ll believe it when I see it (although his free throw stroke has looked solid). The redshirt sophomore and former Pennsylvania state player of the year will certainly get his chance to make an impact this year.
From there we really don’t know what to expect. 6’9 freshman Nnanna Njoku figures to see some time in a backup role, as he’s a physical, true big man. But…
SMALL BALL. This team looks primed to play a four guard offense nearly the entire game, with plenty of opportunity to play Jermaine Samuels, Brandon Slater or Trey Patterson at the 5. Samuels has proven he can be an effective frontcourt player, as he can guard 1 through 5 and rebound exceptionally well. Slater has put on some mass this offseason, and his length and athleticism should help him compete with the bigger bodies down low. Patterson is now listed at 6’9 (!), and reports from the Blue/White scrimmage indicate he looks like a plus rebounder at the forward spot. It is going to be fascinating to see how Jay handles the frontcourt rotation and how these guys can perform in different roles.
There’s obviously a lot to figure out with the lineup early on, but there’s not a lot of cupcake games to work through it. Thankfully we have an experienced team that has played in a lot of big games, and hopefully this group can make it through the non-conference relatively unscathed. A quick breakdown:
Friday November 12th: @ UCLA - The Bruins were a halfcourt buzzer beater away from the national championship game this past season after a Cinderella run, starting in the first four. They bring everyone back and are a consensus preseason top five team going into this year. Johnny Juzang might have had the best individual run of last year’s tournament, and he and Jaime Jaquez Jr. form a dynamic duo of swingmen for Mick Cronin’s group. Tyger Campbell vs. Collin Gillespie is going to be an awesome point guard matchup.
Saturday November 20th/Sunday November 21st, Hall of Fame Tip-off @ Mohegan Sun - This might be quietly the best preseason tournament of the year. Four top 20 teams will square off in a two game format, featuring Villanova, Tennessee, Purdue and North Carolina. We will square off with Tennessee on Saturday, a tough-minded defensive team with a mixture of experience and young talent, including five-star PG Kennedy Chandler. Purdue looks to be a legit final four contender, led by Trevion Williams and Jaden Ivey. And Hubert Davis has got a classic UNC roster to work with - big and athletic, featuring Armondo Bacot and Marquette transfer Dawson Garcia (28 points against ‘Nova a year ago). This tournament should be extremely competitive and very telling of what we’ve got early in the year.
Tuesday, December 7th vs. Syracuse (at MSG) - The Cole Swider revenge game. This should be fun, as Syracuse will throw at us the always challenging 2-3 zone and may jack up more threes than we do. Buddy Boeheim is coming off outstanding ACC and NCAA tournament runs, and is expected to put up big numbers again in his senior year. Joseph Girard III is another dangerous sharpshooter and Swider is, well, capable. Villanova is the better team but I expect a good one at the Garden in early December.
Sunday, December 12th @ Baylor - A rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 down in Waco, this game should be awesome as well. Scott Drew’s squad lost a ton from last year’s juggernaut of a team (Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, Mark Vital, Macio Teague) - but figures to still be a top-15 opponent. Adam Flagler and Matthew Mayer are impressive scorers, and James Akinjo (via Georgetown, Arizona) joins the roster this year to add more firepower on offense. A road win over a highly respected team like Baylor would go a long way here in boosting the resume.
... Is it really even worth mentioning the Big Five games?
Is the Big East Any Good?
This is not Villanova’s best team of the “new” Big East era (I would love to be wrong about that), but to me it seems like the biggest gap we’ve had as the number one team in the league. Most teams are down from last year and there aren’t a lot of threatening rosters or elite individual players out there.
Uconn seems to be the biggest challenger as they’re they only other team ranked in the AP top 25 (#24). They are led by a tough duo of senior guards in RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin - who both averaged double figures in scoring a year ago. Adama Sanogo could be one of the best bigs in the league when it’s all said and done. And they’ve got the better of the Hurley brothers at the helm, as Dan seems to be moving the Huskies in the right direction pretty quickly. This team will be big and tough defensively, but could struggle to score without James Bouknight, which limits their ceiling.
Xavier could also be a tough out this season. They bring back everyone from a team that was sort of a mystery a year ago (they only played 21 games due to multiple COVID outbreaks). Paul Scruggs is somehow still there, along with fellow preseason All-Big East big man Zach Freemantle - who is sidelined with an injury and set to return in December.
Beyond these two teams I see a lot more questions than answers within the conference. Julian Champagnie will probably lead the league in scoring for an average St. John’s team, which lost pretty much everyone else besides Posh Alexander (nightmares). Seton Hall should be scrappy but doesn’t possess the firepower that they have in years past. Nate Watson is a force, but he’ll have to do a ton of heavy lifting to keep Providence in the hunt.
There’s also transfers galore across the league, so there will certainly be some new names popping up along the way. It’d be unfair to count any of these middle-of-the-pack teams out of the conversation, but the league still runs through the Main Line.
Man, it is going to be nice to #PackTheFinn, and to see the boys play a Saturday game at Wells Fargo again. I almost forgot that it’s been two seasons since we’ve seen full crowds at our games. It’s going to be incredible to see the energy of the Nova Nation back in action, and to give Collin, Jermaine and Dhamir their proper send-offs at the end of the year.
Alright, I’m ready for Mount Saint Mary’s - Tomorrow night can’t get here soon enough.