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Villanova Basketball: Veterans and transfers meshing well in start of Big East play

The performances of Villanova's four transfer players in (2023-'24; who are) TJ Bamba, Tyler Burton, Hakim Hart, and Lance Ware will determine the Big East standout's status in the NCAA Tournament come March/April.

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Early impact from the transfers

To date, the transfers have logged a ton of minutes for the 2023-‘24 Wildcats; and at 6-1, the Wildcats are off to a strong-start besides its lone hiccup against the Quakers. While its loss to the Ivy-Leaguers isn’t necessarily a bad-loss for the (previously-) top 25 - ranked Wildcats, it wasn’t a great one (either), and the Cats were given the opportunity to bounce back in the Bahamas this past week at the eight-team Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. Led by a pair of vets who also happen to be products of the Jay Wright era, Dixon and Moore carried their Wildcats to the Bahamian tournament-crown; after winning three straight-games over the Red Raiders of Texas Tech, the 14th-ranked Tar Heels of UNC, and (most recently) Penny Hardaway’s Memphis Tigers.

In its two-point semifinal-victory over North Carolina, Nova was thankful for the 34-point, 10-rebound career-game that its 2022-‘23 Second Team All-Big East selection, (now-) redshirt-senior Eric Dixon, had. Meanwhile, the Cats also leaned on another fifth-year senior, (in) Justin Moore, who was able to chip-in with 16 points (of his own) against the ACC southerners who (also) happened to be on the wrong side of history in the 2016 national championship game.

To put the icing on the cake, Villanova destroyed Memphis in the Bahamian-final (-game); and did so by jumping out to a 30 point lead by halftime before defeating the Tigers; 79-63. In manhandling the Tennesseans, the Philly main-liners and its suffocating defense gave-up just 16 first-half points while the success of its balanced scoring-attack was evidenced through five scorers who reached double-figures; including Dixon and Moore (both had 11).

After a disjointed performance in the Cats’ four-point (76-72) loss to the Quakers, Nova put a weak Terps-team (of Maryland) to-bed early and coasted to a 17-point victory; 57-40. In the home-victory, transfers Burton and Bamba were the only Nova-players who were able to score in double-figures via 15 and 11; respectively, while Moore and Dixon were quiet on the offensive end throughout the game; but the veteran-duo still managed to put up 15 points together (/8 and 7 respectively).

As the season progresses, the Wildcats’ coaches will be continuing their search for what works best and when it works best; a large-project that’s focused primarily on finding the proper-rotations and (finding-) who earns the key minutes.

Historically, Villanova-basketball has taken great pride in its continuity (on its roster); and the recent emergence of the transfer-portal is clearly a trend whose own existence could be a major detriment to the health of the Cats culture. Although today's Cats have been forced to integrate the (addition of its) transfer-players, it’s not as if Nova’s current head-coach (/Neptune) and his predecessor are (each) known for rolling out a complicated offensive scheme.

In fact, Nova’s offense relies more on the crispness of its fundamentals than it does on any motion-like system to create quality shot-opportunities; whether we’re talking about being strong with the basketball (in your own hands), keeping the (/your) dribble alive, dribble-penetrating, taking good-shots, making perimeter-shots, sinking free-throws, drawing fouls, utilizing ball-&-shot fakes, arriving at jump-stops, using the (/our) pivot-foot, protecting the basketball, or (/and) leveraging mismatches.

However, Nova’s offense is (also) notorious for grinding its opponents down by utilizing a slow pace; which takes (time) getting used to, and, on the other end (of the floor), the Cats play textbook, man-to-man defense with physical post-play (from guards and all players), active (not reaching & w/out fouling) hands, quick/good feet, lots of switching (and) , ball-denial on the first-pass (from) off-the-ball, and sending help to the ball (when necessary; and) when it’s in the paint.

In the Jay era, eventual transfer players (who left Nova) ; such as the current Miami Heat small-forward (in), Cole Swider (Syracuse), and the former five-star recruit, Bryan Antoine (Radford), became well acquainted with exiting the game following a (slight-) defensive miscue; whether it was (for whatever reason; including) going underneath a screen, committing a reach-in (/shooting; or any bad) foul, or having a lack of awareness on the weak-side off-the-ball. As the season unfolds, tracking just how tuned the instincts of Kyle Neptune (and the transfer players) are with respect to the little-details (that can make a big-difference) could be a telltale sign of what’s to come.

For a blue-blood program that’s been predicating its success on valuing a short-bench, being true to the fundamentals, championing exceptional guard-play (on both ends), and sticking to its identity over the last two (plus-) decades, Kyle Neptune and today’s Wildcats are being asked to engage in a balancing act of sorts; one where Nova must find a way to assimilate the team’s (already) molded-players (into a culture that’s accustomed to molding its players themselves) and without losing sight of their preferred-identity. Thanks to the Cats’ pair of homegrown seniors (in) , Justin Moore and Eric Dixon , the Big East powerhouse knows it possesses leadership, and it remains to be seen whether the new-veterans (who are transfers; in) Bamba, Burton, Hart, and Ware can assert themselves as consistent, two-way contributors night-in and night-out.

Before Neptune came aboard as Nova’s head-coach, NCAA basketball was orchestrated in such a manner that it allowed teams to remain together; and (past-) coaches like Jay Wright had the luxury of knowing every player on their roster down to the most minute details. While it’s true (that) the landscape of that time allowed coaches to build close relationships with their players, Wright was still a special case; as he was able to harness his player’s unique talents in a way that produced winning teams (in) 19 out of 21 seasons.

Nowadays, Neptune’s being asked to produce a winning-team that’s undergone a lot of turnover to its roster; and that inherently comes with consuming lots of new-information in small amounts of time; especially when it comes to evaluating transfer-players. With Nova’s current-season still in its infancy, the hope is that last year’s All-Conference selections like Bamba and Burton (& Hart) will be able to showcase their serious scoring-potential; but bouts of inconsistency (in) this season alongside a history of facing lower-caliber opponents (on lower-caliber teams in Washington State and Richmond; respectively) make it challenging to get a good-read on them.

In spurts, Bamba looks like a guy who averaged nearly 16 points per-game (like he did) at Washington State; and in other-spots he looks like a kid who’s playing in a new system, with new players, and Nova-sized expectations. Getting the most out of Bamba (and company) is going to be huge for Neptune and his coaching-future. In many respects, Jay Wright eventually garnered the attention of the Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame by validating (and strictly enforcing) the simple, straightforward principles that have stood the test of time; values that are as rudimentary as playing on two-feet (is), keeping two-hands on the ball, utilizing the “triple-threat” position (w/ the ball), and gang-rebounding.

For that to happen, Wright needed to have complete-control of his players; so he could (then) mold them; and the legendary coach couldn’t afford to be bothered with (handling the kinds of) players he didn’t know well. Along those lines, Villanova’s culture was built on maintaining poise under duress; and it’s difficult to-remain level-headed when your habits-&-tendencies aren’t the proper ones. And, in sports, habits aren’t born overnight. Such actions take time to-develop; and time is of the essence for transfer-players.

In the Cats only-loss of the young season (against Penn) , the entire team, except for Justin Moore, looked like a boxer who had been knocked off his (/their) spot. Specifically, Nova’s four-transfers struggled mightily to-score the ball; as 13 total-points on a 4 for 15 shooting-effort in 67 combined-minutes told the transfer’s tale of woe.

As the pandemonium was building in the second-half (from the Penn fans) at the Palestra, finishing through contact was particularly problematic for Nova; and, defensively, the road-favorites were late in sending help to the ball on Penn’s isolation dribble-drives and (iso) back-downs. Once the underdogs (had) created separation from the Cats, Neptune’s knack for nervously touching his beard became a theme; and the fear he manifested with his own body-language didn’t seem to help his team’s cause.

Although Justin Moore and Jordan Longino combined for 39 points in the loss against the well-coached Quakers (25 and 14 respectively) , their teammates weren’t able to find much of a rhythm or tempo all night; and the team’s (lackluster) sense of urgency didn’t appear until it was too late; or once the Cats found themselves down double-digits with a few-minutes remaining in the game. Notably, the visiting-team didn’t start pressing full-court ‘till the latter stages of the second-half; and it seemed off (putting) to me that the Cats were so reluctant to press with 10-to-15 minutes (still) remaining in the game.