As Villanova prepares to host the University of Pennsylvania in their first home Big 5 game of the year, VU Hoops caught up with Eric Dixon, Mark Armstrong and Coach Kyle Neptune to recap an exciting week of Villanova basketball, and look ahead to Wednesday night’s showdown at the Finneran Pavilion.
Coming off a less-than-desirable showing in the Phil Knight Invitational, Villanova returned ‘home’ to host the Sooners of Oklahoma as a part of the Big East/Big 12 battle, but for those who may have missed it, Cam Whitmore made his long awaited debut with Mark Armstrong cracking the starting five.
“He didn’t really take a step back,” Armstrong said of Whitmore. “He was working on his game while he was out and now you guys are seeing the product. He’s been playing well.”
In just 20 minutes, Whitmore led both teams in steals with three, while tacking on seven points, all in the first half.
“Out there defensively, I think, is where he can make the biggest impact,” Neptune said of the highly-touted freshman.
Eric Dixon added by saying, “he made shots and whatever, but his biggest plays for us were the deflections, the forced turnovers and stuff like that.”
Whitmore is already a unicorn when it comes to his offensive skill set. To move the way he does and guard positions one through five on the floor at 6-foot-7 and 232 pounds is impressive and deserving of all of the hype he is building after 20 minutes of NCAA basketball.
While the anticipation built around Whitmore’s debut, the excitement and curiosity piqued at a potential lineup change. Armstrong turned heads in his first career college start. In 15 minutes, Armstrong tallied 10 points on 75% shooting, connecting on his only attempt from beyond the arc. That performance was good enough for Armstrong to earn the latest Big East Freshman of the Week honors.
“My teammates and my coaches, and the managers, just everybody in this program,” said Armstrong, deferring the credit to his recent success elsewhere. “They all put so much in and we all play for each other.”
That Whitmore-Armstrong connection will be something to watch, especially as they embrace bigger roles in the near future.
Over the summer, Mark Armstrong and Cam Whitmore played together on Team USA and brought them to win gold in convincing fashion at the FIBA U18 Americas Cup.
“They’ve known each other before USA basketball,” Neptune said of the freshmen pair. “They played the whole summer together with us and then most of the fall before Cam got hurt, so I think they do have a good chemistry.”
Now, they’ll look to make an impact as first-year players on the Main Line.
“It’s carried over real well,” Armstrong said of his connection with Whitmore. “... We built a great relationship there with USA, and we’re just playing well together, getting along with each other and having that great chemistry.”
Dixon, veterans have stepped up so far
While Whitmore and Armstrong are the new kids on the block making a name for themselves in the conference, Eric Dixon is one of the seasoned veterans on this team who just may be the silent anchor of this squad.
“The coaching staff has been working with me for the last four years, my role has been different every single year,” Dixon said. “It just so happens that this year they are putting me in a position to score.”
Scoring is one thing that is a night-and-day difference for Eric Dixon this year. Although we are just now getting into December, Eric Dixon is top five in scoring for the Big East conference with just under 17 points per game.
In addition to Dixon, Caleb Daniels, Brandon Slater and Chris Arcidiacono compromise the four “wily” veterans on Kyle Neptune’s roster in his first year. After a shaky start to the season, it finally seems like things are starting to calm down, and a lot of that is in part to their leadership.
Finding consistency on the defensive end, while experimenting and dealing with injuries
In the early first half against Oklahoma, the Sooners connected on three of their first four attempts from beyond the arc. After that, they went over eight minutes without a basket again. Kyle Neptune was asked about what changed and if we should expect to see more of the improvements on the defensive end.
“I really hope so,” Neptune said with a grin from ear to ear. “We strive to play a full 40 minutes, you know, we are a young team who are still figuring ourselves out.”
Although they may be young and it is still early, the Wildcats have all the ingredients necessary in a recipe for a successful season.
One unnecessary ingredient, however, is a pinch of the injury bug. It was a very encouraging sign to see Cam Whitmore back, but a familiar name to the injury report resurfaced Tuesday.
Neptune told VU Hoops that Jordan Longino has been struggling a bit with some “knee stiffness” but stressed it was “nothing too crazy.”
“I think everybody this time of year, you start to get past the first five or six games, everybody has a little nicks and bruises etc,” he said.
That would explain the change in the starting lineup, but should not be cause for any major concern.
“So we just, we mixed it up a little bit, just because he hadn’t been practicing as much as he would have liked,” Neptune added in reference to Jordan Longino coming off of the bench against Oklahoma.
If you have any major stock in Villanova, hang on to it. Better days are ahead for the Wildcats. One last quote of the day for some positive inspiration heading into conference play is the one that Kyle Neptune gave on his way out.
“I think they’ve done great,” Neptune said of his early-season assessment. “I don’t sense that anything that our guys have done is out of a sense of nervousness or scared of the moment. The reality is we do have a young team, young teams make mistakes and we are going to continue to learn from those mistakes. You know, like we tell our guys every day, our goal is to be the best that we can be by the end of the season. I think we are on our way to be that team”.