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Eric Dixon’s big strides in the Villanova frontcourt

The local product and redshirt sophomore continues to grow and develop under Jay Wright’s wing.

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

Nobody was fully sure what he was capable of once he was brought off from being a red-shirt. Even as Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s understudy last season, Eric Dixon showed some glimpses but was still pretty raw.

Now, he’s bloomed in his first season as a full time starter. Dixon has stepped nicely into his role as the primary big man on Jay Wright’s squad. He averages 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest while shooting nearly 51% from the field.

He has transformed himself into a pure college center — his patience has grown and his post-skills have refined tremendously, and he’s only getting better with time.

“Just opportunities coming my way, just trying to make smart decisions and trying to be physical,” Dixon said of his strong play as of late.

A local to the area from Willow Grove, Pa., Dixon came in as a highly touted prospect with offers from Miami, Maryland and Virginia among others, but his skill set was raw and relatively unpolished. He needed time to observe and absorb the system.

Now, in his third year on the team and second on the active roster, he has refined his abilities significantly. His footwork, physicality and his approach to the fundamentals of being a center have provided wonders for the entire team.

“He definitely takes a lot of pressure off for us,” Gillespie said. “Just throwing it inside, he can either score or he can make good decisions passing the ball as well. ... He can do a great job guarding big, he can guard guards too.”

Villanova has typically been Guard U. When Robinson-Earl left early for the NBA Draft, there was some uncertainty in the frontcourt, including Villanova’s size entering this season.

The current roster only has one player at 6-foot-8 in Jermaine Samuels, two at 6-9 in Eric Dixon and Trey Patterson, and one at 6-10 in Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who is still limited by injuries.

At the moment, Samuels and Dixon are the only two consistent front court players, with Brandon Slater occasionally being able to play the 4 in small ball lineups. Cosby-Roundtree, Patterson and Njoku have not yet had consistent minutes in the rotation, so Dixon and Samuels are required to take more of the burden.

This is often taken in comparison with other Big East programs who have stalwart frontcourt units that stand in at 6-foot-10 or taller, occasionally reaching 7 feet. For a conference that’s won and lost on physicality, being smaller can hurt. Thankfully, Dixon can provide that consistency at the five spot that many thought would be lost with the departure of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.

Any lingering uncertainty has subsided with Dixon in the post, and his continued evolution has been a welcomed site. He started playing large minutes out of necessity as the only returning healthy big man, but now he’s emerged into someone that can be relied on night in and night out, while Patterson and Njoku learn and develop behind the scenes.

“Eric’s playing well and we like playing Maino [Samuels] at that spot too,” Wright said. “Nnanna’s in a good spot too in his development, we’re really proud of him. We think he’s gonna be in a really good spot and that he’s gonna be a really good player. That’s how we’re handling it, both with Eric’s play and being patient with someone’s development.”

Dixon’s best work of the season will be needed as Villanova will have two ranked opponents this week: a rematch on the road against No. 24 Marquette on Wednesday, and a Wells Fargo showdown against No. 17 UConn on Saturday.

It’ll be a tough challenge for the ‘Cats, and Dixon will have some tough big men to go up against, including returning Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Whaley, but Dixon has shown he’s always ready to step it up.