On Thursday evening, the Villanova Wildcats hosted their annual media day, which marked the first time that the public had access to the full roster this season. In what was arguably the busiest offseason in program history, there was a lot to cover, so let’s get right into it.
The New Kids on the Block
Tyler Burton, Hakim Hart, TJ Bamba and Lance Ware mark the largest transfer class the program has ever seen and they all seem to have the same goal in mind: winning basketball games.
Regardless of the success and opportunities they had, they gave it all up to come to Villanova and learn the Wildcat way.
“You know, just being a part of a great Villanova team, and hopefully a National Championship,” said Burton, when asked what he is looking to gain from his final year of eligibility.
Burton was THE guy at Richmond. In his last season with the Spiders, Burton averaged 19 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as the unrivaled leader of the team. He left Richmond was one of the program’s top all-time scorers and rebounders, becoming only one of three Spiders to ever reach the 1,500-point and 750-rebound marks.
“I wouldn’t say I came here to be the man, just more of an impact guy so I can come and help and really show off what I can do,” Burton added.
In addition to Burton, Hakim Hart also had an extremely successful career at Maryland. Hart shares the same mindset where winning comes first and everything else will fall into place. A Philadelphia native, Hart’s decision to come to the best basketball college in the greater Philadelphia area made sense from a geographic standpoint, but also from a value standpoint as well.
“I’m impressed with the culture here, the brotherhood, the history, the history in the tournament,” Hart said. “That is something that I have always wanted to do, go very far in the tournament, and I can do that with this team, so I just came here to make that dream happen.”
Hart’s commitment to the Wildcats in the summer flew a little too far under the radar in the grand scheme of things. There is a need for a player like Hart, who knows his role and what he needs to do to execute it on the floor for the betterment of the team.
“This is ‘Guard University’ basically, I feel like I am a big guard and I fit in perfectly well, so that’s why I chose to come here,” Hart said about his decision to attend Villanova based on his role.
Another under-the-radar addition was Kentucky transfer and Camden native Lance Ware. Ware’s journey from high school to the SEC, now in the best conference in college basketball, has been filled with some turbulence, but Ware has stayed positive throughout the journey.
“A lot of ups and downs, kind of like life in general. Like eighth grade I started playing, in high school I made a name for myself, went to a school, did what I was supposed to do, transferred, it’s just like a lot of ups and downs” said Ware.
Ware has only practiced a handful of times this preseason with a hamstring injury but is listed as day-to-day and this ailment does not project to be a long term issue.
The Man of the Hour: Nnanna Njoku
Yes, you read that correctly. When brainstorming ideas for an article, this was frankly not close to the top of the list, but when so many people are talking about the same thing, you have to run with it.
After an impressive showing at the Blue-White Scrimmage, Njoku reminded people of just how much of an impact he could be in the post. After injuries derailed him for a good part of last season, forcing him to redshirt, he looks like he has finally ready to take the leap Wildcat fans have been dying to see.
“Over the summer I gave myself the best chance possible, lost a lot of weight, stayed healthy, just honestly came out with a hungry mindset,” Njoku said. “After redshirting last year, I kind of had a little chip on my shoulder, and having the teammates I have they’re gonna push me everyday.”
Njoku always had the talent. The best player in Delaware coming out of the 2021 class, four star Njoku was projected to be a Power 5 starter coming out of high school.
“Freak talent. He’s a freak talent,” Dixon said of Njoku. “He’s 6’9, 250 [pounds], 40 inch vertical. He can block shots, dunk. I’m just so proud of him, taking the game more seriously over the summer. Watching him go from a high school kid to a college basketball player, that’s a big leap that not a lot of people realize, not a lot of people reach, so that was great.”
Coming back from an injury can be just as tough mentally as it is physically and Njoku reached out to his faith to guide him through the storm.
“I turned to my faith and my family,” Njoku proudly remarked. “Everyday on the phone with Father Rob, with my mom, trying to figure things out mentally, trying to stay motivated.”
Everyone had great things to say about Njoku’s growth from his teammates to his head coach. Dixon and Ware project to see some big time minutes, but don’t be surprised if you see and enjoy more Nnanna Njoku this upcoming season.
“He can guard on the perimeter, he can really bang inside, and he’s a great rebounder,” coach Kyle Neptune said. “He just has that physical presence you just go in there and bounce off of him at times … it’s good to have that guy in our practice and we think he can carry that over to the games as well.”
The Old Guard(s)
The ever changing landscape of college basketball is a complex world to understand, but at the end of the day the universe has a funny way of working itself out.
Justin Moore, who is in his last year of eligibility, could have very easily left to go closer to home (Maryland), go play with familiar high school teammates (UNC, Kansas) or even joined his brother (Ohio State) but Moore stayed home for one more chance at a fully healthy season.
“I think the best situation for me was to come back and play a full year, and get fully healthy, 110%, which I’m at now so it’s been great,” says Justin Moore on his decision to come back.
Moore has it all this year, the metaphorical (maybe literal with NIL nowadays) keys to the sportscar. He has the talent of an All-American and the IQ and experience of a seasoned vet. Exactly the figurehead you want leading a contender.
“He’s one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever been around,” said Neptune.
In addition to Justin Moore, another under-the-radar guy is Jordan Longino. There was no point last year in which Longino was 100% healthy, but now he is and is ready to remind people of the impact he can make off the bench.
“I’m very blessed to get to this point,” said Longino.
This is Longino’s first full summer and fall in over a year and if all goes to plan, Longino will be a full go with no minutes restrictions forthcoming.
The last head of the three-headed-monster backcourt is Mark Armstrong. While Kyle Neptune was noncommittal on a starting lineup, it would not be a surprise to find Armstrong in there.
“Last year he did a great job, you know, just kind of threw him out in the fire and he had to react in those moments and I think he did a good job,” Neptune said. “This year I think he’s gotten that under his belt and I think he’s primed to have a big time year.”
His head coach was not the only one taking notice of Armstrong’s commitment.
“Mark’s been in here every single day, we shoot together every single day,” said Brendan Hausen. “I’m looking for him to be a floor general that I know he can be.”
Armstrong in the gym working on his shot with someone who Neptune has called the best shooter he has ever seen will only add to the extremely deep bag Armstrong possesses. “A big time year” may be an understatement.
Earlier in the week, Creighton head coach Greg McDermott told CBS’ Jon Rothstein that people are “sleeping” on Villanova this season and that just may be the case.
Creighton's Greg McDermott tells me that people are sleeping on Villanova entering the 2023-24 season.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 11, 2023
McDermott on Villanova: "They've got seven seniors. How many bad teams out there exist with seven seniors in today's day and age?"
Kyle Neptune told reporters that last season during practice, they would sometimes scrimmage 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 with guys like Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu helping out from time to time. Now they have more bodies, more hungry bodies to compete in practice, which is a great start. Iron sharpens iron.
In addition to the sheer amount of humans on the roster now and the ability to scrimmage five on five (with a sub!). This team’s mindset is in the right place. They don’t care about their AP ranking, what people are saying in the media, or any external noise, they want to win games.
“Now bringing in five new guys, this is a completely different team from last year. We don’t even address what happened last year” said Neptune.
Taking the rosters at face value, like the other 350+ teams in college basketball, there is a sense of optimism in the air for this team.
The Wildcats are deeper, stronger, more experienced and together all working towards the same goal selflessly.
Hindsight will always be 20/20, but do not be surprised if these stories being published now are a precursor foreshadowing a successful season for the new and improved Wildcats.