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‘Next man up’ mentality for Daniels, Villanova ahead of Final Four

Daniels is ready to step into the starting five and others are ready for bigger responsibilities, as the Wildcats put the finishing touches on their Final Four preparations before heading to New Orleans.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament South Regional-Houston vs Villanova Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone has an opinion.

The storylines, the takes, the anticipation — they’re all heating up for the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four weekend.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the are-they-or-aren’t-they a Blue Blood? Is it a big deal for the Villanova Wildcats to be recognized as such?

There’s nothing better than going straight to the source.

“We don’t really focus on it at all,” Villanova guard Collin Gillespie said about the Blue Blood chatter. “Obviously, it’s great to be part of it with three other historic programs that have had a lot of success in the history of college basketball. Definitely have great respect for those three programs, but we just focus on playing Villanova basketball. We don’t worry about those titles or anything like that, as long as we compete for 40 minutes, play hard, we’ll take whatever.”

It’s easy for those kinds of talks to become a distraction, especially on college basketball’s biggest stage, it can be easy to feel like you’re bigger than you actually are.

Caleb Daniels’ phone has been blowing up. It’s a homecoming for him, as Villanova prepares to compete in the Final Four at New Orleans. Everybody wants a ticket.

“Definitely, just getting hit up by my family and friends from New Orleans,” Daniels said. “But we’re just trying to focus on what we’re doing and 94 by 50 feet.”

There’s much bigger fish to fry, much larger than the kind served up on seafood platters or the ones that pack po’boys on Bourbon Street. It’s a business trip, and if there wasn’t already enough motivation for this team, Justin Moore’s injury added even further fuel for the Wildcats.

“Other guys are going to be playing in bigger roles in different situations,” Gillespie said. “Some other guys are going to have to step up and play valuable minutes off the bench. Caleb is in a different role. He’s normally coming off the bench, but he’ll be starting now. That’s not really new for him. He started all last year, so I think he’s comfortable.

“It’s just going to be trying to get comfortable this week without (Justin Moore) because he’s been such a huge part of our success, but we also did play once without him in the middle of the year, so it’s not like we’re not unfamiliar with it — but you can’t speak to what he’s done for our team on the offensive and defensive end all year.”

Kansas doesn’t plan on sending any sympathy cards. With leading scorer Ochai Agbaji, the length and skill that guards Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson add, on top of the frontcourt size of Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack — there’s a lot to prepare for. Also can’t forget about former Arizona State standout Remy Martin coming off the bench and providing a spark.

“They’re a tough, physical and athletic team that plays really well together,” Villanova forward Eric Dixon said. “We’re gonna try to stay together. We know there’s going to be ups and downs that game — runs, big shots — we just got to stay together.”

Kansas enters Saturday with a 32-6 record. Villanova bested the Jayhawks in their last two NCAA Tournament meetings en route to national championships in 2016 and 2018.

Even their meetings in 2019 and 2020 in a home-and-home series rivaled the kinds of games you’d expect in March.

“It kind of has been a little rivalry because we’ve seen them so many times in the past four years, but that’s just what you expect,” Gillespie said. “When you see a great team like that, well-coached, you know every time you step onto the court it’s going to be a great game.”

Daniels will be getting the starting nod. Earlier in the week, Villanova coach Jay Wright said to expect Bryan Antoine, Chris Arcidiacono and even Trey Patterson to see an uptick in minutes and responsibilities.

“We’re not going to be perfect, but we’ve got to be together for 40 minutes — that’s what matters the most,” Daniels said. “Every guy is going to have to step up, be a playmaker offensively, as well as making the same defensive plays that Justin would make. He was a huge asset to us, a huge help. He’s done a lot of things both offensively and defensively for us, it’s just a matter of everyone stepping up to fill in that role.

“(As a starter,) I just have to stay on the same attack and just be locked in defensively, and just stay locked in to what we do.”

Dixon is confident in his team’s preparation and has belief in those that will be having a bigger role this weekend.

“Obviously, we’d love to have (Moore) out there, but we have a lot of guys that are chomping at the bit and are ready to go. We trust all of them,” Dixon said. “Just coming together for him, similar to how he’s done for Jordan, Collin or Bryan, when they went down. We just focus on coming together, showing him we’re there for him, by being tough and together.”

The selflessness is for Moore, but it also extends to the other players on that court or that Villanova locker room.

“Some people don’t get this in their entire lifetime, so you try to not take it for granted, but for me, I’m really just there for my teammates,” Dixon said. “Collin and Jermaine are fifth-year guys, this is it for them, just try to focus on that.”

KenPom predicts a close one-point game in Kansas’ favor. Vegas oddsmakers deemed the ‘Cats to be four-point underdogs after the Moore injury.

“They’re a really talented team, hard-working team, a great defensive team, but so are we,” Daniels said. “It’s gonna be a great game, a great battle between two different teams.”

For Gillespie, Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree — the last remaining holdovers from that 2018 national championship team — they’ve dreamt of returning to the Final Four as leaders.

They wished they could do it without any tragic injuries to their teammates, but they’re no stranger to adversity and they’re ready for whatever challenges may come.

“It’s special to be going back, playing with these guys,” Gillespie said. “Obviously, it sucks Justin went down. I talk to him all the time about it, we were kind of prepared to do this together. It’s sad he went down, but we’re going to play for him. Next man up mentality, and I know guys are going to step up for him.”