Busting Brackets

Villanova Basketball: What is the reason for Wildcats recent downfall?

Villanova v Seton Hall
Villanova v Seton Hall / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

Things must be bad on the mainline when a team with the prestige of Villanova’s program loses their top incoming transfer to an A10 school. Well, that’s exactly what happened when VCU’s Max Shulga decommitted from Villanova to return to VCU. Aside from the temporary Shulga commitment, Villanova’s transfer class looks very different from last year's.

Last season, the Wildcats brought in one of the better transfer classes in the country. Despite this, last season was another lost year where the Wildcats missed the Big Dance. Head coach Kyle Neptune has not quite yet lived up to the high standards that Villanova fans expect due to their prowess as a top basketball program annually. It’s what they’ve grown accustomed to. Maybe it’s time to cut Neptune some slack, as it’s impossible to fill the shoes of legendary and Hall of Fame coach, Jay Wright. 

In 21 seasons at Villanova, Jay Wright won two national championships, and took the team to three final fours, four elite eights, and seven sweet sixteens. Under Wright, Villanova would finish atop the Big East standings annually. Wright is a top-ten coach in the history of the sport. But as constructed, it should be anticipated that Villanova will likely finish towards the bottom of the Big East standings and miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in as many years with Neptune at the helm. While it would be unfair to compare Neptune to Wright, the pedigree of the Villanova basketball program will definitely play a role in their fans' expectations. 

After leaving Hofstra for greener pastures at Villanova, Wright struggled early on in his Villanova tenure. The Wildcats went 52-46 in his first three years at the helm. Similarly, Neptune is 35-33 through his first two seasons. However, Wright always seemed to do more with less while Neptune has had immense talent on underachieving rosters. To start Neptune’s tenure as Wright’s successor, Villanova was coming off a final four run where team leader, Justin Moore, tore his Achilles.

With Moore and five-start freshman, Cam Whitmore out for the first seven games of Neptune’s first season, the program started with a 2-5 record with losses that included Temple (109th in KenPom at the time) and Portland (123th in KenPom at the time). To make matters worse, Villanova later suffered back-to-back losses to Big East bottom dweller, DePaul (144th ranked in KenPom) and Butler. After losing the first three games to Big East foes once Moore returned from injury, the Cats got their sea legs under them and finished the season winning seven of their final ten games. 

Once the offseason approached and Villanova had some momentum behind them, that’s when the transfers flurried in. With Whitmore off to the NBA, Neptune successfully recruited the 4th best transfer class to Villanova, per 247sports. While Villanova had Eric Dixon and a healthy Moore returning, Neptune did an excellent job replacing the pieces around them. In came Richmond’s Tyler Burton, Kentucky’s Lance Ware, Maryland’s Hakim Hart, and Oregon’s TJ Bamba. The roster that Neptune assembled solidified Villanova as a pre-season top-25 team, ranking them 22nd in the nation. However, things didn’t go as planned. In their third game of the season, Neptune’s Villanova squad lost to 202nd in KenPom ranked Penn.

Afterward, Villanova began living up to their potential, as they ran the table at Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, with wins over Texas Tech, North Carolina, and Memphis. After returning to the Philadelphia area, the Cats lost a home game to St. Joe’s (118th in KenPom) and then solidified last place in the Big Five tournament after losing to city foe Drexel (128th in KenPom). Once Big East play started, Villanova played .500 basketball and their Battle 4 Atlantis victories were not enough to solidify themselves an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. 

In total, Neptune has lost six games to a team outside of KenPom’s top 100 through his first two seasons. It took Neptune coaching 43 games to lose those six. Meanwhile, for Jay Wright to lose six games against sub-100 KenPom teams, you’d have to go back to his last 413 games. Again, it is unfair to compare Neptune to the legend that is Jay Wright but that doesn’t lessen the expectations.

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However, without Shulga, Villanova will need to rely very heavily on Penn and La Salle transfers, Tyler Perkins and Jhamir Brickus, to lead the backcourt. Otherwise, if Eric Dixon remains in the NBA draft, the roster is bare and likely finishes near the bottom of the Big East standings. Is the downfall of Villanova’s gold standard program due to Neptune’s arrival, or Wright’s departure? Only time will tell.