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College Basketball

Villanova Will Continue Running Itself

Caleb Daniels, Kyle Neptune, Eric Dixon at a press conference
Dan McQuade/Defector

VILLANOVA, Pa. Jay Wright built quite a program during his 21 seasons at Villanova. He won two national titles, ruled the Big East for a decade, and dominated the Big 5 for longer than that. He made the school a ton of money! That success justified a complete renovation of Villanova’s Pavilion, which was long derided by Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Dick Jerardi as the “ski lodge” due to its hyperbolic paraboloid roofline.

The roof was kind of neat. But the old place lacked charm. It opened in 1985 and had gotten kind of dingy. It was getting old. Also, it was previously named after John du Pont. The renovated Finneran Pavilion, which opened in 2018, is bright and shiny. It has become a wonderful place to watch a game, thanks in large part to Jay Wright’s success.

Wright went 520–197, and he did it all with a smile and a handshake. Forget the titles; there is no more incredible accomplishment on Jay Wright’s docket during his time on the Main Line than the fact that he made Villanova basketball kind of likable. The teams he coached were both great and great to watch. He retired in an instant, without taking a yearlong tour to say goodbye as Philly celebrities sometimes do, and as highly successful college basketball coaches also tend to do. I cannot believe I’ve written so many nice things about Villanova basketball.

But will that success keep going? Wright is gone, retired and now presumably wearing a meticulously tailored suit around his house, or to the grocery store. Kyle Neptune is in. A two-year starter at Lehigh, Neptune was a Villanova assistant for a while before taking the head coaching job at Fordham last year. The team was 9-22 and 2-12 the two years before he took over, then rebounded to 16-16 under Neptune. That was enough to get Villanova to hire him away. Last night, anyway, Neptune made it look like Villanova will continue rolling.

Pregame, the Wildcats ran the same drills they had for years under Wright. (I particularly like this defensive set where the players look like they’re in the “Thriller” video; for proof Villanova has done this for a while, I wrote about it in the lede my recap of a 2003 Villanova-Penn basketball game when I was in college.) They ran the same offense. They ran the same defense. It might as well have been a Jay Wright team beating up on La Salle in the season-opening 81-68 win on Monday night.

“They had the same structure, the same plays,” said La Salle’s Josh Nickelberry, who had 22 in the loss. “They basically played the same game.” There is another way to sum it up. And it’s with a cliche that Jon Rothstein uses constantly: Villanova is a Fortune 500 company. It runs itself. (Do Fortune 500 companies run themselves? Yeah, sure, why not? It’s not like it’s a goat rodeo.)

The Pavilion last night, and a pre-renovation image from 2005. (Left: Dan McQuade/Defector; Right: Novanut35, used under a Creative Commons license)

It made sense, then, that Neptune said he was not nervous before the opening game. “I slept like a baby last night,” he said. “For me, I’m picking out whatever I could do as a coach to help these guys be prepared. I thought we had great practices before the game. We had a great walkthrough… this afternoon. So there was nothing to worry about.”

He’s underselling it a bit. The Wildcats lost two starters. Another two players, Cam Whitmore and Justin Moore, are out with injuries. La Salle is not very good—they have a mostly-retooled team, and a new coach of their own—but Villanova made sure the game was over very quickly. Early on, Caleb Daniels passed it to Eric Dixon for an easy dunk. The next possession, Dixon hit Daniels for a three. Another Daniels three pushed it to 17-5, and the game was basically over after just eight minutes. Daniels, a 6-foot-4 guard, had 24 and 10 while wearing a mask to protect a broken nose. The mask was pretty large, and jutted out assertively from his face. He said he’s pretty adjusted to it by now. “This mask was just given to me,” he said when I asked if there was a process to pick it. “It’s just a precautionary measure so I don’t break my face again. It’s a bit of trouble sometimes, but I’m still using it for now.” Dixon added 20, and the 6-foot-8 forward stepped out and hit a pair of threes in the second half. This is still Villanova basketball.

The game was also the first for new La Salle coach Fran Dunphy, returning from retirement after having previously coached Temple and Penn. Unlike Neptune, he was nervous. “I had agita all day,” he said. “And then I got here and it was just awesome, watching the kids play and doing some really good things.” La Salle has retooled under Dunphy—they added the Drame twins, who played for Saint Peter’s last year—but there will likely be lots of losses this season for the Explorers. La Salle and Villanova each have made big changes, but in many ways things are still exactly the same.

Correction: The original version of this post stated that Kyle Neptune was the head coach of Hofstra last season. He was actually the head coach of Fordham.