Despite Challenges, Samuels Leading ‘Cats to Early Postseason Success


Courtesy of Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Jermaine Samuels’ two-way effort led the Wildcats to a first round win over Delaware on Friday.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

PITTSBURGH 一 Jermaine Samuels was everywhere in Villanova’s opening round 80-60 win over Delaware.

The official March Madness Twitter account said as much, but the post of a minute-long span in the first half tells less than half the story. 

As the clip rolls, two Villanova defenders fall away trying to steal the ball from Delaware’s Jyare Davis, leaving Davis with a wide open dunk. From near the free throw line, Samuels takes two steps, leaping and meeting Davis at the rim to deny the dunk attempt before skidding into rows of cheerleaders behind the basket. As Villanova brings the ball up the court, Samuels hustles to join his team on offense, setting a screen for junior guard Justin Moore and grabbing an offensive rebound. The video then cuts to 30 seconds later, with Villanova on offense again. Samuels sets a screen for graduate guard Collin Gillespie, then receives the ball back behind the arc. With a patented Samuels pump fake, the graduate forward gets his defender to bite, driving past the off-balance Blue Hen before slamming the ball through the hoop with one hand.

With just over two minutes remaining, Samuels was there again, his seemingly relentless motor still going. Samuels attempted to dive into the Villanova bench to save a rebound from going out of bounds, leaping and contorting his 6’7” frame before twisting to pass the ball back into play. Although Samuels was unable to prevent the ball from leaving play, he was successful in giving assistant coach Dwayne Anderson a bloody nose, his elbow slamming into Anderson’s nose as the assistant coach attempted to save the forward from crashing into the Villanova bench.

The score at the time? Villanova led by 20, assured of a spot in the second round. Samuels never considered electing for self-preservation and letting the ball go.

“No, that’s not what we do here at Villanova,” Samuels said. “We’re going to play a full 40. That’s just the way we play here no matter what’s going on around us.”

By the end of it, Samuels boasted a statline reflective of his hustle: 15 points, seven offensive rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block, two three-pointers, a plus/minus of 24 and one knockout elbow. In short, gallons of sweat and a cloth towel of blood, all to prevent Villanova tears.

Even such a statline doesn’t tell the whole story. Just a week ago, Samuels couldn’t even stand long enough to make it through a walkthrough.

Ten minutes before Villanova’s opening round win in the Big East Tournament over St. John’s, Samuels was pulled from the starting lineup. Samuels’ back had “locked up” during warm-ups, and suddenly, a key piece of the Villanova team was in doubt to play at all.

Samuels was in clear pain throughout the game, riding an exercise bike in the tunnel whenever he got the chance, but with fellow forward Eric Dixon similarly limited due to sickness, Samuels was forced into playing 26 minutes. Despite being nowhere near 100%, the big man from Franklin, Mass. managed to grab eight rebounds, scoring seven points in a one-point Villanova win.

“We were just ready to go without him,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said after the win. “And then he just appeared on the bench. I don’t know what the time was, but whenever he appeared I just put him in the game. And we just said, let’s just see what he looks like.”

The next night, Samuels didn’t just play – he starred. Samuels played himself into Villanova lore with a 21 point, 12 rebound double-double, carrying the team through to the championship on a night when Moore and Gillespie couldn’t buy a basket. UConn head coach Dan Hurley dared Samuels to beat them, and he did.

“It’s unbelievable,” Wright said after the semifinal victory. “He couldn’t go through walk-through, couldn’t stand long enough to go through walk-through. I’m amazed at him.”

In the championship game, again Samuels’ statline didn’t tell the whole story. The forward picked up two fouls in the opening minutes, forced to spend time on the bench where his back spasms could return. However, Samuels still found a way to make an impact. In 24 minutes, Samuels logged eight rebounds and was a key part of a defensive effort that held Creighton to just 48 points.

“I was shocked that he did what he did,” Wright said later. “I never thought he’d be able to play in the Big East (Tournament) like he did.”

With the NCAA Tournament looming, questions were asked about Samuels’ health and the health of the team as a whole after playing three grueling games in three days, so much so that Wright banned the team from working out the day after the tournament. Wright was asked if his older players were the ones to enforce the policy, but he denied it with a smile.

No,” Wright said. “No, the fifth-year guys are the problem. They’re not good at [taking a break].”

Samuels took the week to get his body right, and by the time the team made it to Pittsburgh, the forward was back to normal. Samuels was asked, “Beyond saying you’re fine, how are you doing physically?” Samuels responded with a laugh. “I’m great. Promise.”

On Friday, Samuels proved he was, in fact, “great”, yet to Villanova players, his rapid recovery wasn’t a surprise. This was the Samuels they knew, the Samuels that refused to sit out and played his entire senior season with a broken finger, the Samuels that would do anything for his teammates, the Samuels that had played through injury countless times before.

“He’ll do whatever it takes to be out there with his teammates and his coaches, and he’ll give his body up for us,” Gillespie said. “And then you know he’s always going to find a way to play no matter what it is or what’s going on with him. 

“He’s a team-first guy. He’s so unselfish, and you can really rely on him to just go out there and do whatever is asked of him.”

Wright said the same, saying after last Friday’s win in the Big East semifinals that they’d “prop him up [and] throw him out there” for Saturday’s final, knowing that the fifth year would be able to deliver. Yet Samuels has refused to boast or brag about his own toughness, instead heaping praise on the Villanova support staff.

“Shout-outs to the guys that are on the staff, Dan, Al, Dr. Kropf,” Samuels said. “Those guys have been working with me nonstop, and then staying moving, staying loose and having the confidence that these guys have in me.”

Samuels has made his Villanova reputation on being everywhere. Throughout his whole career, he’s always been at the right place at the right time, from open behind the three point line to knock off then No.1 Kansas in 2019, to in the paint at Madison Square Garden, to almost crashing into the benches in the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh.

Was anyone from Villanova surprised that Samuels found a way to play, and not only that, found  a way to be everywhere?

“No,” Gillespie said. “That’s just who he is.”