Villanova head coach Jay Wright
(Yong Kim/Philly.com Staff Photographer)
Redemption and retooling are two words that come to mind when thinking of the quickly approaching Villanova University men’s basketball season. The disheartening postseason exit at the hands of the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament last Spring evoke redemption. The set of seniors are ready, willing, and able to take up the leadership mantle speaks to retooling. It’s not just the roster that’s getting revamped, either. A fresh, new look to the soon-to-be official Finneran Pavilion moves the Wildcats from their cozy spot on Lancaster Avenue to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia. The anticipation of both a new facility and the season match the lofty aspirations of this program whose fans eagerly await a loaded schedule. Here’s a look from behind enemy lines at the opponents set in Villanova’s non-conference schedule.
November 14 vs Nicholls State | WFC | 6:30 p.m. | FS1
This is the first ever meeting between VU and the small school in Thibodaux, Louisiana, who is still clawing its way through the Southland Conference. With a second year head coach in Richie Riley, an opportunity for exposure and even an upset is invaluable. There is no better way to do so than face a perennial tournament team and consistent conference champ. For those who might remember, Riley’s Colonels team put the nation on watch when they took down Boston College in Beantown in the first game of the year last season. Though young and new to the head coaching scene, there’s a strong foundation Xs and Os wise. “Richie’s basketball IQ is just terrific,” University of Texas head coach Shaka Smart said of the NSU head coach for GeauxColonels.com. “He understands the game and is not afraid to be innovative, but he also knows how important it is to be fundamentally sound.”
November 17 vs Lafayette | PPL Center | Allentown, Pennsylvania | 8 p.m. | FS2
This matchup is particularly interesting for a few reasons. Although it’s in Allentown, Villanova is marked as the home team, despite LC’s Easton location being under half an hour away. Regardless, the Wildcats have been quite comfortable against the Leopards in recent years, most eloquently exhibited by the team’s 40-point drubbing at the Pavilion last season. Mikail Bridges shined in that one, grabbing game-high 8 rebounds to go with 16 points.
November 22 vs Western Kentucky | Atlantis Paradise Island | Paradise Island, Bahamas | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN Networks
In a rematch of the 1971 Final Four, Western Kentucky gets its first shot at Villanova in this century in the Battle 4 Atlantis first round. The Hilltoppers, like NSU, are led by a second year head coach in Rick Stansbury. He’s the 15th HC in program history. Stansbury is in his second stint at the head of a program, as well, previously coaching at Mississippi State University from 1998 - 2012 after eight years as an assistant there. What WKU fans know about their team is that they are young at their core, but supported by veteran leadership. Guard Darius Thompson, a graduate student, might be the most well traveled of them all for the ‘Toppers, having started his career at the University of Tennessee, where he led a Sweet 16 UT team in steals with 36 and was second in assists at 87. He then threw on another orange jersey for the University of Virginia where he was active in 70 games over two seasons where the Cavaliers made the NCAA tournament. The winner of this game faces Purdue or Thompson’s alma mater, Tennessee, in round two on November 23rd. The other guaranteed game will be on the 24th against an opponent TBD.
November 29 | Penn | Jake Nevin Fieldhouse | Villanova, Pa. | 7 p.m. | Fox Sports networks
In the first Philadelphia Big 5 game for either team, the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse sets the stage for what should be a fantastic night of college hoops. The two squared off last year for what was VU head coach Jay Wright’s 18th bout against the Quakers. Ironically enough, last season’s 82-57 win at the Wells Fargo Center for ‘Nova put them on the fast track to 18 straight City 6 Series wins. The Quakers are coming off of a 13-15 season that looks bad on paper, but did produce the program’s first berth in the inaugural Ivy League tournament. Expect another full-throttle effort from the Jalen-Brunson-led Wildcats to put Penn away.
December 2 | St. Joseph’s | Hagan Arena | Philadelphia | 5:30 p.m. | ESPN2
The Holy War opens the month of December for both teams. Hawks’ fans, as always, are looking forward to this clash of Catholic schools, but are particularly amped for the play of the SJU core that has grown with the program. Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, a Neumann-Goretti High School graduate, put up a team-high 15 points in the Hawks’ L last season against ‘Nova. Kimble was looking to be one of the go-to guys for the Hawks this year, but re-injured his left foot in their season opener. St. Joe’s may have to play without Kimble, but they have seniors Shavar Newkirk and James Demery back and playing well throughout the early part of the season.
December 5 | Gonzaga | Madison Square Garden | New York, New York | 7 p.m. | ESPN
The last two teams to face North Carolina in the past two years’ NCAA Championship games take to New York City’s famed arena early in December. Gonzaga, up until this point, will not have traveled farther than Portland, Oregon for a game, so an hour and a half train ride (and a very notable alumni base in the NYC area) makes this a virtual home game for Villanova. With the conditions favorable to the Wildcats, they need to take advantage here. The ‘Zags will bring an interesting makeup to the court come the 5th, as they look to bolster a roster without NBA players Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, and Zach Collins. That’s where Joel Ayayi steps in. Gonzaga earned the commitment of the 6-foot-5, 160-pound French guard this offseason. Ayayi shined for France’s FIBA under-16 European championship squad, averaged about 11 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists per game as they finished sixth out of the 16 teams. Ayayi isn’t the only member of the roster with international flare; Killian Tillie (France), Jacob Larson (Denmark), and Rui Hachimura (Japan) represent other home nations while donning the red and navy blue ‘Zaga threads.
December 10 | La Salle | WFC | 1 p.m. | FS1
The Explorers played host in last year’s game at the Palestra and made an absolute spectacle of the evening, pushing the Wildcats to a highly competitive 1st half. Pookie Powell’s three 3-pointers and 10 field goals was the dominant stat line for La Salle last year and complementary piece B.J. Johnson returns to the roster after withdrawing his name from NBA Draft considerations. The two are key components to look out for this season for the boys of Northwest Philly.
December 13 | Temple | Liacouras Center | Philadelphia | 7 p.m. | ESPN2
If fans recall, Villanova had a really tough time shooting the ball against Temple last year. A 36% and 35% shooting marks with field goals and 3’s, respectively, gave TU every chance to pull away with the game. Each year Temple has that potential. Though the Owls head coach is often criticized for recruiting, Fran Dunphy seems to always pull together rosters of competitive players. The names that come to mind are senior forward Obi Enechionyia and senior guard Josh Brown. There won’t be a game you don’t see the two on the court directing traffic and being active on both ends of the floor. They would be “glue guys” to any program, who complement each other’s games on both sides of the floor, but especially for a Temple team that is itching to get back to the NCAA Tournament and make some noise.
December 22 | Hofstra | Nassau Coliseum | Uniondale, New York | 8:30 p.m. | FS1
Jay Wright loves to go back and face the team he once coached. To close out the non-conference portion of the season, the Wildcats will head to the legendary Nassau Coliseum for a near-Christmas clash with the Pride. Hofstra was a bottom-half team most of the season in the Colonial Athletic Conference last year, but the squad did give Delaware a run for its money in the CAA Tournament. If they want to stay in the game against a 30-win team like Villanova, giving up almost 80 points per game will not cut it. Defensive efforts from Rokas Gustys, the Lithuanian big man, will anchor the team. The kid is all about the inside game and has double-double potential every night.
-#1 Villanova takes on Providence this Tuesday