The day is finally here.
The Villanova Wildcats are set to begin their 2022-23 campaign on Monday night when they host Philadelphia Big 5 rival, the La Salle Explorers.
This will be the 71st meeting between these two programs, with Villanova holding a commanding 43-27 advantage over La Salle in the all-time series. Although the Wildcats have won nine of the last 10 matchups against the Explorers, two of the last four meetings, were one-point games with under five minutes to go in regulation. LaSalle’s last win against Villanova came back in November of 2012, edging out the Wildcats 74-72 in overtime fashion.
Monday’s season tip-off will be on FS1, but you will not be able to catch the entire game there. FS1 is doing what they call wrap-around coverage where they pop in and out of live games in a similar fashion to NFL RedZone Network. If you are interested in watching the full game with no interruptions, it will be streamed live on the Fox Sports app.
Changing of the guard(s)
We all know that the Villanova Wildcats will be entering the season without Jay Wright at the helm, and La Salle will be entering this game with a new head coach as well. In April, the Explorers announced that they have hired 1970 graduate and the all-time winningest coach in Philadelphia Big 5 history, Fran Dunphy, as the 20th coach in the history of the program. Dunphy is the only coach to oversee multiple Big 5 Programs. He was the head coach at Penn from 1989-06, before he took over the job at Temple from 2006-19. Dunphy has amassed over 600 wins in his 30-plus year career, taking his teams to 17 NCAA Tournaments.
As it pertains to the task at hand, Dunphy knows how to get his team prepared. In his thirty years of experience, Dunphy wins on opening night more than he loses and holds a record of 18-12. His expertise, especially in this Big 5 matchup, will be invaluable to this La Salle team looking to rain on Kyle Neptune’s parade.
On the flip side, Villanova will enter the Kyle Neptune era in a matter of hours. Although this may seem to be a big game on the outside, Neptune is staying cool, calm and collected on the inside.
“Every game is our biggest game,” Neptune said about his Villanova head coaching debut. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, all we are thinking about is our next game”.
What you see is what you get with Kyle Neptune. Although he is the youngest head coach in the conference (and by a fairly significant margin), he is one of the most poised, professional and personable people you will find. Here’s to hoping the players will feed off of his familiar vibe and youthful exuberance.
The more things change...
The La Salle Explorers will be coming into the season with seven new faces on the roster that were not here last year. Three freshmen and four transfers comprise the newcomers on the roster, including a pair of talented twins Hassan and Fousseyni Drame, who helped lead the Saint Peter’s Peacocks to an unlikely Elite Eight berth last season.
Josh Nickelberry, who previously played at Louisville before transferring to La Salle, is one of three players who averaged in double digits scoring last season. Nickelberry’s best game came against Holy Cross where he poured in 28 points and added eight rebounds to boot. The 6-4 guard is a gifted scorer and a senior leader for the Explorers. He will certainly be high on Villanova’s scouting report.
Change is in the air at the Main Line as well. Aside from Jay Wright retiring, the Wildcats will be without Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, as all three exercised the entirety of their eligibility. In addition to the seniors leaving, Justin Moore will be out until likely the new year, rehabbing his achilles injury he suffered late in Villanova’s Elite Eight win last March.
Although Neptune was reluctant to give out his official starting five when speaking to VU Hoops on Sunday, we can safely assume that Brandon Slater, Caleb Daniels and Eric Dixon will be firmly inserted in the lineup. Who Neptune picks to round out the starting five is up for debate, but everything that has come out of the summer indicates it will be two of Angelo Brizzi, Jordan Longino and Mark Armstrong.
The good news for Villanova is that, according to Kyle Neptune the freshmen look “great”. He added that “since the summer, our guys have gotten a lot better.”
Caleb Daniels agrees with his coach’s sentiment by giving VU Hoops a firm “yes sir” when asked if the freshmen were going to contribute. If you needed any more reason to get excited about “the daycare,” Brandon Slater also added that Brendan Hausen and Mark Armstrong “are killing it in practice right now” and that they are “amazing.”
It’s early, but Villanova looks to not only be in good shape on Monday night, but moving forward as well.
As previously mentioned, Nickelberry will be a key contributor for this Explorers team looking to play spoils on the Wildcats on opening night. In addition to Nickelberry is a plethora of talent and depth in the backcourt.
Nickelberry was the Explorers leading scorer last year averaging 11.2 points per game on 36.1% from beyond the arc. Sophomore Khalil Brantley is another gifted scorer, who showed flashes of brilliance last year, showcased with a 17-point outing against No. 7 Villanova.
Jhamir ‘Jig’ Brickus figures to play big minutes as well. Brickus paced the Explorers in assists per game last season with 3.3 per contest, while averaging 8.9 points per game, good enough for fourth on the team.
LaSalle also has quality depth off the bench in Anwar Gill and Andrés Marrero. Combining a talented and deep backcourt with new additions in the front court could pose problems for Villanova, depending on how much depth they come into the season with. With that being said, even if La Salle’s backcourt outshines Villanova’s on Monday night it still may not be enough to bring a win back to Olney Ave.
Villanova’s backcourt is not one to scoff at either. My bold pick for Big East Preseason Player of the Year Caleb Daniels will be adjusting into his new leadership role, but will have an outstanding supporting cast around him to do so.
Jordan Longino, Angelo Brizzi, and Mark Armstrong will have significant roles in this team’s success this year, and even more so in the beginning of the year while holding the fort down until Justin Moore returns.
My quick pick: Villanova 78, La Salle 60
It does not matter if you are a prestigious institution like Villanova, or some rinky-dink Division III program, if you have as much change as the Wildcats did over the summer, things are not always going to look pretty. Look for this game to get ugly at times, there may be missed shots, bad turnovers, mental lapses on defense. It will all be okay, this is to be expected. As the game unfolds, Villanova is the more talented roster, and it should have no trouble handling a La Salle team picked to finish 14th out of 15 in the Atlantic-10, even if they do not bring their A-game.