Before Saturday’s Elite Eight game, Villanova coach Jay Wright remembers offering his thoughts on the Houston Cougars.
“I remember saying what an amazing job Kelvin (Sampson) did, losing two of their top players, and I remember saying how I can’t imagine what that would be like,” Wright said. “Now, shoot, we’re in the same spot.”
After losing Jordan Longino with a torn meniscus shortly before the NCAA Tournament tipped off, the Wildcats received another devastating hit in the closing minutes of their win over Houston, then some more bad news when a MRI on Sunday confirmed the worst: Justin Moore suffered a torn Achilles.
“Justin had his surgery at 6:30 (Monday) morning, I want to give a shoutout to our team doctor, Mike Duncan, and Dan Erickson, our trainer, who got everything set up on Sunday morning to get a MRI and get the surgeon in here to meet Justin and his family,” Wright said. “He came out of surgery great, it went well. I also want to try to address what an incredible player Justin is, a bit part of this team. He can defend any position, he’s one of the best rebounding guards in the country. He’s played every position for us, obviously except the ‘5.’ In that sense, he’s probably our most valuable player.
“I just want everybody to know I think he’s underrated in terms of his value to this team and what he’s done this year. I think he’s one of the most complete players in the country, if you look at his ability to do everything for this team and be a leader at the same time. ... Just felt like Justin was undervalued all year outside of our program, but he didn’t care.”
Moore was second on the team to Collin Gillespie in scoring, averaging 14.8 points per game. He also had 4.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Aside from evolving in nearly every facet of the game, this season saw him step up as a top defender for the Wildcats.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Villanova senior Jermaine Samuels said after the Elite Eight win. “Kind of gave me a flashback to when the same thing happened to Collin last year, where it was like a numb type of feeling.”
With Moore out, Wright and his team will take advantage of this week and the five days of practice from now until Saturday’s Final Four game against Kansas tips off to adjust and make changes on both ends of the court.
“There are other guys like Chris Arcidiacono, Bryan Antoine, Trey (Patterson) — those guys will get other opportunities,” Wright said. “All of our guys that come off the bench will be given more minutes. Even Eric Dixon, who starts, will play more minutes. It’s opportunities for them. We believe we can be a good team without him, but what that said, we know how good Kansas is. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason.”
While the potentially two remaining games left for the ‘Cats are certainly grand in scale, Wright and his players point to other instances and moments they had to deal with injuries and other absences throughout their lineup, dating back to the end of last season. If things go well for the ‘Cats, they’ll only have to improvise and make due for a total of 80 minutes.
“We’ve played well without a great player and it’s what a program is about,” Wright said. “I think they do understand it, because we’ve had situations like that this year, where Collin and Justin were hurt and didn’t play. Our guys realize it’s just opportunities for other guys. The other guys that are not playing, not because they’re not good, they’re not playing because the other guys are just so good. This is just their opportunity, and I think that’s what we’re going to take from this and how we’ll approach it.”
The ‘Cats, who enter Saturday’s contest with a 30-7 record, will face Kansas, who is currently 32-6. The Jayhawks punched their ticket to the Final Four with one of the most impressive halves of the NCAA Tournament, outscoring Miami 47-15 in the second half to win convincingly after a closely-contested first half.
These two teams are no strangers to one another, with Villanova pulling off a one-point victory in its most recent meeting at the Wells Fargo Center in 2020.
The Wildcats also defeated the Jayhawks en route to their national titles in 2016 and 2018. Wright believes his reserves will be ready for bigger roles, especially guys like Antoine.
“By the time he came back, was healthy enough, and had been in enough practices to play, we had our rotation set,” Wright said. “We were playing really efficiently. We don’t play a guy to just to play them or make them happy. Guys understand they’re getting better every day in practice, and they understand they’re going to play when our team is running efficiently with them. He’s learned a great deal, and he’s ready to step in.”
In addition to devising a game plan for Kansas, Wright mentions he’s also been finding a way to get Moore down to New Orleans. Jordan Longino, who had to miss the trip to San Antonio due to his surgery, will be making the trip with the team.
Getting Moore down to join the team has been just as important to scheming for Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji.
“(Moore won’t get to travel) with the team, but it’s what we’ve been working on,” Wright said. “You watch a Final Four, people are talking about the game, all we’re working on is Justin’s surgery, getting him a flight down there so we can get him down there. The concern about blood clots, there has to be a certain amount of time from his surgery. He’s gonna be able to go down Saturday morning, and we really want him there with us, and he really wants to be there. The amount of time into that is incredible.”