Frustration and disappointment filled the Villanova campus late last Friday. A year after being a No. 1 seed and having an Elite Eight appearance, this group of Wildcats could not get past the first round. They provided a spirited effort against Kentucky, but as the game reached its waning moments, it was clear that this was not 2006. This team did not have the same group of veterans and leaders that had been crucial to the team’s success a year ago. As the final buzzer sounded, it signified the end of an era for Villanova basketball. Mike Nardi, Will Sheridan and Curtis Sumpter had just played their final game, and as they walked off the floor for the last time, they took with them the last remaining memory of one the greatest Villanova teams ever. While they will be missed and hard to replace, losing the seniors is a way of life in college basketball, and Villanova must prepare for the future. Just making the tournament is nice for a school like Eastern Kentucky, but at Villanova, everyone is waiting to hang up a banner beside the one that says “1985.”
Part of the benefit of having a young team this season is that plenty of players were able to gain experience. Most notable was Big East Rookie of the Year Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds should provide stability and experience and hopefully will be in school long enough to accomplish something with the team. Reynolds will be the top option for the offense, and with a year already under his belt, he should show better shot discipline than he did at some points this season. The only negative aspect to his freshman success is that he will be a marked man who will be subject to double-teams. Nevertheless, Reynolds should once again be one of the best scoring guards in the Big East.
However, Reynolds cannot be the only returning player who contributes on offense. With the lack of size caused by the departure of Sheridan and Sumpter, Dante Cunningham must become a legitimate threat on offense. He showed several flashes of his potential this season, and when he is at his best, expect a game like the one he had against Syracuse at the end of the season. Cunningham is one of the better post defenders in the country, and if he is able to make a Herbert Hill-like improvement to his offensive game, he will be one of the most valuable players in the conference.
As Villanova saw down the stretch this season, two productive offensive players are not enough to win games. The role players on the team must become threats as well. Both freshman guard Reggie Redding and sophomore forward Shane Clark showed that ability at times during the season, but both seemed to lose some confidence in their shot as the games became more important. Injuries clearly played a role in this, and it will be hard to defend against Villanova if both Clark and Redding come back healthy and confident.
In addition to these players, seldom used freshman forward Casiem Drummond and sophomore guard Bilal Benn should see a substantial increase in playing time. Drummond showed a lot of promise on both sides of the ball this season, and if he is able to put on some more muscle and add some tenacity, Villanova could have the next Roy Hibbert on its hands. In Benn, the Wildcats have a tremendous hustle player that does all the little things crucial to a team’s success. Any offensive production out of Benn is an added bonus.
What makes next season so promising, even without a returning senior on the roster, is Villanova’s terrific recruiting class. The three freshmen joining the team are Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Malcolm Grant. Fisher is the point guard for No. 2 nationally-ranked St. Patrick’s High School in New Jersey. He is a vocal leader and competitor on the court that possesses an immeasurable amount of confidence. His greatest strengths are driving to the basket and setting his teammates up for open shots. Fisher should serve as the team’s emotional leader and compares favorably to former Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves. Stokes was a small forward at Fisher’s rival high school, St. Benedict’s, in New Jersey. He is a tremendous shooter with great touch on his shot. Both Fisher and Stokes should have immediate impact as freshmen and should prevent the scoring droughts that hurt Villanova at many points this past season.
The team’s final recruit, Malcolm Grant, is also a point guard who should add some depth early in his career. The tenacious guard out of Brooklyn originally committed to Seton Hall before attending Winchendon Prep School last season. As a whole, this freshman class should rival the one that graduated in 2006.
Two other players that may be overlooked but could see significant minutes are red-shirt freshmen Andrew Ott and Antonio PeÃ±a. Ott will add some much-needed size while also stretching the defense with his outside shot. PeÃ±a will also give the team more bulk up front and is one of the better players inside on the team.
Wildcats fans, get ready to embrace a new team next season. To borrow a phrase from Rick Pitino, Randy Foye is not walking through that door. Sumpter is not walking through that door. Next year’s team will have no seniors and few players with experience as a starter, but that shouldn’t discourage ‘Nova Nation. The Wildcats have the talent to make a dent in both the Big East standings and the NCAA tournament next season. To expect this team to win a title next season is unrealistic, but give them a year to build chemistry and experience, and one day they will be there. When that does happen, don’t forget to take a moment to thank the old guard for helping put Villanova back on the college basketball map.