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Next Stop: Villanova

The ‘Cats Bring in Copious Talent from Portal
Courtesy of Villanova Athletics

When senior guard TJ Bamba entered the transfer portal after the season’s end in March, calls from schools interested in him got so frequent that, for a period, he had to turn his phone off.

“I couldn’t even sleep,” Bamba said. “The first day, my phone was constantly just ringing, ringing, ringing. I didn’t have no free time for real for a little bit. I had to just [step] back, turn my phone off, it got to that type of point.”

Bamba is one of many athletes that has benefited from the NCAA’s decision in April 2021 to eliminate a rule that required first-time transfers to sit out a year. This means that athletes across all sports could transfer and be eligible immediately once.

Villanova brought in four four-star transfers this offseason, including Bamba. Graduate forward Tyler Burton from Richmond and graduate guard Hakim Hart from Maryland will both utilize their last year of collegiate eligibility with the ‘Cats this season, while Bamba (Washington State) and senior forward Lance Ware (Kentucky) both have two remaining seasons of eligibility, if they choose to take them.

For Bamba, it means an opportunity to play on a bigger stage. A three-star recruit coming out of high school in the class of 2020, Bamba originally drew interest from mid-major programs. The outlier in his original recruitment was Washington State, where he played his first three years of college basketball.

In his third year, his first full season as a starter, Bamba’s stock rose exponentially. The six-foot-five guard proved himself as an explosive scoring threat, averaging 15.8 points in Pullman. As a result, Bamba had widespread interest when he decided to enter the portal.

Suitors for Bamba included Texas, Tennessee, Auburn, North Carolina and St. John’s. Bamba eventually narrowed them to two, choosing Villanova over Georgia Tech.

“I just wanted to be a part of a great program,” Bamba said. “I wanted to be a part of something great, you know Villanova’s a great program, they’re really prestigious in what they do, I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to elevate. I wanted to win.”

A short while ago, Villanova’s 2022-23 season would have spelled even greater disaster than exiting the NIT in the first round. With two of the team’s veteran leaders – Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels — exhausting their eligibility, and another dazzling talent (Cam Whitmore) headed for the NBA early, the ‘Cats lost 52% of their per game scoring from last season. Before the 2021 rule change, Villanova would have had to rely on elevations from within or incoming freshmen to replace and bolster the team’s offensive production. Now, it can simply turn to the portal.

The departures of Daniels, Slater and Whitmore were expected and planned for. The ‘Cats brought in the fourth best transfer class in the nation per 247Sports in an effort to shore up the core of the team.

“Each guy is different, but each guy is very similar, because they’re very versatile,” head coach Kyle Neptune said. “All the guys that we brought in can play multiple positions, they’re great decision makers, they have college basketball experience at the highest levels, they’re all competitors.”

Experience is of paramount importance in collegiate athletics across the board, especially given the NCAA’s decision to grant all athletes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 an extra year of eligibility. However, to say the 2023-24 iteration of the Wildcats roster has “a lot of experience” may be an understatement. 

ESPN Insider John Gasaway estimated in June that the ‘Cats may have the oldest rotation among the projected top-25 teams for 2023-24. The average age of the ‘Cats, weighted by projected minutes, is 22.8.

This checks out from an observational standpoint too. Graduate guard Justin Moore, in his fifth and final year of college basketball, is 23. He’ll be less than a week shy of 24 on the date of the National Championship game this year. Redshirt senior forward Eric Dixon is 22 and will turn 23 in January. Burton is 23 and will turn 24 on February 11, when the ‘Cats play Seton Hall at Wells Fargo Center. 

“If you have a lot of experience doing what you do, that’s to your advantage,” Neptune said. “I think our team this year has a lot of experience. The newer guys need a little bit of experience with Villanova basketball, but I think they’re doing a great job.”

Age doesn’t always equal success, but, like Neptune said, experience never hurts. In the same ESPN article, Gasaway cites San Diego State as the oldest team in last year’s Sweet 16. While the Aztecs would ultimately come up short of the title, there’s no question that their team’s experience helped lead them to the Final Four. Every Aztec that averaged more than five points in 2022-23 was an upperclassman. Six of the eight players qualifying were seniors.

Neptune’s skill as a recruiter landed Villanova a class of transfers that launched pre-season expectations skyward, as the ‘Cats went from a mediocre season to a No. 22 preseason AP Poll ranking. 

With the transfer portal’s relative novelty, both coaches and players are still adjusting to the all-powerful portal.

“It is an experience for sure, definitely an experience,” Neptune said. “It’s something that I think all of us in the college sports world are learning on the fly. It’s new for everyone, it’s new for the student-athletes, it’s new for the coaches… There’s technically no one who can say ‘I’ve been recruiting the transfer portal for 10 years. I know exactly how this is going to go.’ There’s no one who can say that. So I think it’s just a matter of everyone’s doing it for the first time, trying to figure it out as we go.”

Neptune has done a pretty good job of figuring it out, as he’s provided his team with all the tools it needs to shake off a subpar year and get back to the NCAA Tournament. 

“Each year is different,” Neptune said. “Even if you bring back literally exactly the same team with exactly the same players, those guys now have a completely different vantage point, those guys have different goals, different expectations, so that team would be completely different. Now bringing in four new, five new guys, this team is a completely different team from last year.”

Of course, not everyone had as chaotic a portal experience. While Bamba’s phone wouldn’t stop ringing, Burton’s experience was blissful in comparison. Burton chose to mark “do not contact” on his profile, meaning he had to reach out to a program first before any coaches could reach out to him.

“I had a mark under no contact,” Burton said. “Whether coaches listen to that or not is one thing or another.”

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Owen Hewitt
Owen Hewitt, Co-Sports Editor
Owen Hewitt is one of two Co-Sports Editors in 2024. Entering his second year in this position, he is a Communications major specializing in journalism. Owen is a Memphis native and a die-hard Grizzlies fan, although his main loyalty lies with Memphis 901 FC. When not writing about basketball or soccer, Owen can often be found on stage, performing as part of Villanova's improv team Ridiculum. Owen has many goals in life, including going into sports journalism as a profession, but his main goal — always — is to stay jitty with it.
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