By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
Editor’s note: John Fanta is counting down his top 15 college basketball teams at regular intervals leading up to the start of the 2022-23 season. Checking in at No. 14 is Villanova.
What does life after Jay Wright hold for Villanova men’s basketball? It’s one of the biggest questions in the sport entering the 2022-23 campaign.
It’s also a question that none of us envisioned asking at this time a year ago. But, Wright’s decision to retire, which went public on April 20 and sent shockwaves across the country, was the start of an offseason like no other for the Wildcats program.
Jay Wright’s shocking retirement from Villanova
Mark Titus and Tate Frazier react after two-time national champion Jay Wright announced his retirement in April.
Yes, Villanova stayed in the family by hiring Kyle Neptune, who spent eight years as Wright’s assistant before taking the head coaching job at Fordham for a season. Neptune has no plans to reinvent the wheel, and his goal is to keep the Wildcats at the top of the sport.
That said, Wright took Villanova and elevated it to blue blood status over the last decade, with national championships in 2016 and 2018, and a third trip to the Final Four in six NCAA Tournaments last April. The Cats have been the gold standard of the Big East, winning at least the conference’s regular season or tournament title each season since the league reconfigured in 2013.
Of course, Wright, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 2021, is the main reason for the rise of Villanova, but can the Wildcats sustain his formula without him?
The pieces are still in place for Villanova to be one of the nation’s best yet again. While Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels are gone, the Wildcats have four high-impact players back, plus the nation’s No. 21 recruiting class according to 247 Sports.
Admittedly, the Wildcats get some benefit of the doubt to be included here because, over the last nine years, they’ve won more than any other program in college basketball with a record of … get this … 264-53.
Let’s break down the roster, and begin with the top storyline of Villanova’s season.
The Big Question: When will Justin Moore be back?
If Moore was healthy heading into the season, Villanova could have a case as a preseason top-10 team and Big East championship favorite. But on the night of March 26, Moore’s career, the Wildcats’ national title hopes and the upcoming season took a major turn for the worse when he suffered a torn right Achilles tendon in the regional final win over Houston.
Before that injury occurred, Moore was viewed as a potential superstar for Villanova as a senior in the upcoming season, primed to lead the backcourt in the post-Gillespie era. Averaging 14.8 points, 4.8 boards and 2.3 assists per game last season, Moore would have likely been an All-Big East Preseason First Team selection and a potential candidate for the conference player of the year.
His status makes the upcoming Villanova season even more intriguing in addition to the change in leadership. Neptune and his staff are hopeful that the 6-foot-4 guard could be back sometime in January, but with something as major as an Achilles injury, it’s hard to predict an exact timeline, not to mention how much spring Moore will have when he does return to the floor. But, if he can come back and stand out, he would serve as a big addition — almost like a midseason trade deadline move — and could totally change Villanova’s already solid March ceiling for the better.
There may not be a single player who could impact the late-season race — nor what the Wildcats turn out to be — more than the star guard, making the questions surrounding his return of high importance.
Entering his sixth year of college basketball, guard Caleb Daniels is the Wildcats’ leading returning scorer. With Moore out, it’s on the 6-foot-4 guard from New Orleans to serve as the leader of Villanova’s backcourt, and that’s been a focus for Neptune and his staff this summer. Daniels will need to take his game to another level after he averaged 10.3 points on 42% shooting last season. He showed his ability to perform on the big stage in the NCAA Tournament, combining for 25 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight (win over Houston) and Final Four (loss to national champion Kansas), respectively.
Elsewhere in the backcourt, look for sophomore guard Jordan Longino to take on an increased role this season. He only averaged 8.8 minutes per game over 26 contests before injuring his knee ahead of the NCAA Tournament, but the Wildcats will need him to take on a bigger role. There is a strong possibility that he starts.
The Wildcats also have Chris Arcidiacono — younger brother of Villanova legend Ryan Arcidiacono — back for his senior season, and he will serve in a bench capacity.
On the wing, Villanova has one of the most versatile players in the Big East in fifth-year senior Brandon Slater. The 6-foot-8 forward really brings toughness to the Wildcats and will be relied upon to do so again. Slater averaged nearly 30 minutes per game last season, posting 8.5 points and 3.7 boards per game. In games that he scored more than 10 points, Villanova went 11-3.
Brandon Slater throws down a MONSTER jam
Watch Villanova’s Brandon Slater fly in hard for a big dunk against the Providence Friars last season.
In the frontcourt, 6-foot-8 redshirt junior Eric Dixon was one of the biggest surprises in the Big East last season, proving that he could take over the five-spot for the Wildcats and coming up big several times through their 30-8 season. Dixon started all 38 games, posting 9.1 points and 6.4 boards per game while converting 50% of his shots. His breakout year led him to winning Philadelphia’s Big Five Most Improved Player of the Year honor. Dixon will once again hold things down on the interior, and he is more than capable of being one of the best bigs in the conference again.
One of the key questions for the Wildcats is their sophomores, simply because they didn’t get many opportunities to play last season. A pair of 6-foot-9 forwards, Trey Patterson and Nnanna Njoku, are reserved to keep an eye on. Angelo Brizzi, who redshirted last season, will serve in a backup role.
Who’s new on the roster?
The Wildcats did not do anything in the transfer portal, something that’s not out of the ordinary for their program. Villanova’s success has started with bringing in players who will stay three or four years, evolve and potentially work their way into the NBA. The program has notched eight draft picks since 2017. Rather than looking at quick fixes in the portal, the Wildcats have for the most part succeeded by developing from within.
That has meant that freshmen do not normally play heavy minutes, but with Moore out and the losses of a couple of veteran studs, the doorway is open for a top-25 recruiting class to get some opportunities.
The headline name in the freshman trio is 6-foot-7 wing and five-star prospect Cam Whitmore, who committed to Villanova over North Carolina and Illinois. Named the Gatorade Maryland Boys Basketball Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American, Whitmore ranked No. 14 in the 247 Sports class rankings. He will likely be named the Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year and has a chance to be the Wildcats’ first one-and-done NBA Draft prospect since Tim Thomas in 1997.
Whitmore made a lot of noise this summer, leading USA Basketball to a gold medal at the FIBA U18 Americas Tournament with 18.7 PPG, including a 30-point performance in the final. Neptune has raved about Whitmore’s physicality and body control. He has a college-ready body and the transition should be easier for him than most freshmen. Whitmore is aggressive and will attack the basket plenty, and Villanova is a fitting place for him to continue to develop his perimeter scoring. Following in the footsteps of Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and other great Wildcat wings, Whitmore should start immediately.
Whitmore’s teammate on the USA Basketball U18 team was point guard Mark Armstrong, who will join him on the Main Line this season. Armstrong, a 6-foot-3 four-star recruit out of Saint Peter’s Prep in New Jersey, was Team USA’s primary point guard on the gold medal run, averaging 10.7 points and 3.8 assists during the event. He broke the Saint Peter’s Prep scoring record in high school with 1,776 career points. It will be interesting to see how Neptune manages Armstrong’s minutes, but he’s a guy who will be asked to step up, especially with Moore not in the fold in at least the first two months.
The other four-star prospect in the class is a 6-foot-4 sharpshooter from Texas, Brendan Hausen. Choosing Villanova over Texas Tech and Oklahoma, among others, Hausen’s perimeter range fits right in with the 3-point focus that has become such a staple to the program’s identity. Hausen also finished his career at Amarillo High School as the program’s all-time leading scorer.
This three-member freshman class, originally recruited by Wright, was re-recruited by Neptune during the leadership transition — and all three prospects reaffirmed their commitments to Villanova. That’s yet another sign of why it made sense for someone so closely connected to Wright and the program to be hired as his successor.
In recent years, I’ve heard people say that Villanova is boring. That’s part of life when all you do is win, and also a reflection of the program’s no-drama, all-business culture.
The 2022-23 season will be the furthest thing from boring. With several new faces entering the program, it’s going to be intriguing to see if Villanova will remain on an elite pedestal.
Neptune certainly won’t have much of a period to ease into the head coaching job. Of the Wildcats’ 31 regular-season games, 30 will come against power conference competition or in the Big Five. A trip to Michigan State in the Gavitt Games, the Phil Knight Invitational in Oregon during Thanksgiving Week and a home date with Oklahoma highlight the team’s non-conference slate.
The Cats certainly possess the firepower to be among the top-15 teams in the country, and while this team could deal with some early hiccups as players take on new roles, this team should be increasingly dangerous as the season goes on. The addition of Moore at some point on the journey could also be a season-changer.
Yes, this year on the Main Line carries no shortage of storylines. With how successful the program has been, a rich recruiting class, and Wright still around as a sounding board for Neptune, Villanova stands at No. 14 in our preseason rankings.
Top 15 countdown:
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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