On Tuesday, the stage was set at Madison Square Garden for Big East Media Day, the unofficial start to the 2016-17 season and a signal that college hoops is just around the corner. After enjoying a 35-5 season that was topped off with a national championship, the Villanova Wildcats were the stars of the scene with reporters swarming them. Here are some notes and takeaways about the Wildcats:
Preseason Favorites, Again
As the Big East always does around this time of year, it released the conference preseason poll. Not only was Villanova on top once again, it did so unanimously. After the Wildcats, came Xavier, Creighton, and a tie between Seton Hall and Georgetown for fourth.
Butler, Marquette, St. John’s, Providence, and DePaul, rounded off the bottom half–in that order.
Josh Hart was tabbed preseason Big East Player of the Year. Last season, Hart was the top scorer for Villanova. He averaged 15.5 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game, and shot 51.3 percent on the floor.
St. John’s Shamorie Ponds was named preseason Big East Rookie of the Year. Ponds, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, will play for his hometown team after an 2,000-point career at Thomas Jefferson (N.Y.). In his senior season, he was named a Jordan All-American and averaged just over 29 points, eight rebounds, and six assists.
National championship buzzer-beating hero Kris Jenkins was named to the preseason All-Big East First Team. Jenkins averaged 13.6 points per game last season. He’s joined on the first team by Kelan Martin (Butler), Maurice Watson Jr. (Creighton), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), and Edmond Sumner (Xavier).
Billy Garrett Jr. (DePaul), Isaac Copeland (Georgetown), Luke Fischer (Marquette), Khadeen Carrington (Seton Hall), and Angel Delgado (Seton Hall) made up the preseason All-Big East Second Team.
Jalen Brunson was given an honorable mention. He averaged 9.6 points per game in his first season at Villanova. Creighton’s Marcus Foster and Georgetown’s L.J. Peak also received preseason honorable mentions.
A Different Kind of Pressure
Going into the beginning of last season, Villanova had been swamped with questions surrounding past NCAA Tournament failures and early exits.
This time around, the narrative has shifted from being able to get past the first weekend, to being able to repeat as national champions. However, the Wildcats have learned in their journey to disprove pundits. They have blocked out external pressure.
“You guys are asking questions, we’re answering them,” senior Darryl Reynolds said. “We just gotta remain true to ourselves, realize that our focus has not changed a ton. We hear it, but you’re always going to hear something. Last year, it was we’re not going to make it past the first round, we’re not going to make the Final Four, we’re not going to win a championship. Now, it’s can they repeat? Can they do this? Everyone’s doing their job. It’s not anything we feel some type of way, it’s just we have to stay committed to each other overall.”
The pressure is more internalized, as Hart, Jenkins, and Reynolds step into their roles as captain for the first time in their lives. They replace Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, both of whom had an impact for all four years at Villanova. Both accumulated over 1,000 career points and between the two of them, combine for six years of experience as captain. Arcidiacono had the rare distinction of being a captain since freshman year, while Ochefu was promoted before the start of his junior year.
“We’re going to embrace the new roles, the things we have to do,” said Jenkins, about embracing the role of a senior leader. “We’re going to accept coaching. We have great teammates who want to listen, want to learn. It’s a new challenge for us, it’s something we’re looking forward to.”
While back-to-back national titles, more accolades, and other accomplishments are all appealing, the Wildcats know that in order to climb back to the top, the journey begins where it began last year–in the practice gym.
“If it gives us any type of chance to do those types of things, we have to be the best Villanova basketball team,” Jenkins said. “Just continue to get in better shape, be a better leader for our team, and just continue to improve in every aspect of the game.”
“It’s over,” Reynolds said. “That was last year, we have to focus on what’s ahead.”
A lot had changed since Villanova last visited Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats were dealt a heartbreaking loss by Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament finals, where they lost 69-67 in a down-to-the-wire game.
Their journey went full circle on Tuesday, when they held brighter facial expressions and smiles.
Since they last left Madison Square Garden in March, they had been to Brooklyn and Louisville in order to make it to Houston for the Final Four. They avenged an earlier loss to Oklahoma, then beat North Carolina on a life-changing shot that put them in the history books. Villanova went home to the Philadelphia area to celebrate, before hitting the road again.
First, the Wildcats went to the White House, getting their chance to continue the long-time tradition of the national championship team going to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Going to the White House was crazy,” said Hart, with a big grin. “Once President Obama came in, everyone was quiet like ‘whoa, this is the president.’ I wish people were able to see that reaction right when he walked in. I wish we could have a still frame of everyone’s face wide-eyed in amazement. It’s definitely surreal, it’s something you grow up watching and to be able to go through it–it’s a crazy feeling.”
Then, there were the ESPYs. Although they walked out empty-handed, it didn’t take away from the experience of sitting elbow to elbow with some of the greatest athletes in the world.
“I was sitting with Mikal, Phil, and Eric,” Hart said. “Every time somebody would walk by, they’d be like “Kobe! Kobe!” My favorite player is Dwyane Wade–you see him there–you see LeBron there, you see Kobe there.”
The jetsetter lifestyle finally came to close with the Spain trip, the team’s last stop before finally heading home. Villanova won all three of its exhibition games, all while getting to go explore Spanish cities and learn more about the culture.
“It was great,” Jenkins said. “Being with the team, learning and being around each other and getting some games under our belt, practices–our trip was very valuable for us.”
Unfortunately, like all college students around the world, summer vacation couldn’t last forever. It was time to get back to work in the classroom, the weight room, the gym, and in practice.
“We’ve definitely refocused, and it’s nice to look back on,” Reynolds said. “But that’s exactly what we’re doing, we’re looking back at it. We’re moving on. We’re looking forward, we can’t so much look at that anymore.”
Protests and Demonstrations?
It’s a hot topic that hasn’t been limited to just professional athletes.
The impact of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest has spread to other players in the NFL, and it’s starting to make its way into other leagues like the NBA. There have been a few demonstrations in the NBA, a league that has regulations on conduct during the national anthem.
The movement has even trickled down to the high school level, with various high school teams across the country no longer standing for the anthem before games.
To pretend like it won’t happen in the Big East would be remiss, in fact some coaches addressed it.
“I’m a big believer that the United States is the best place in the world to live,” said Providence head coach Ed Cooley, in regards to the Friars potentially protesting. “But at the same time, if our kids are going to protest, we’ve got to educate them on why. You don’t want them to be uneducated on injustices everywhere. I have a deep belief in our patriotism, from people who protected our freedom and what it stands for. Is there injustice? It’s everywhere.”
Last season, Georgetown became the first college team to don shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe”–the famous last words of Eric Garner.
Hoya head coach John Thompson III is following in the footsteps of his revered father, who had his team walk off the court before playing a game in 1988, by being completely open to protest and demonstration.
“When and if they bring that to me, the guys will talk about it and we’ll go from there,” he said. “We did this last year with the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts. It’s not just a question of, hey, let’s protest. It’s once we have discussions and I feel comfortable that they understand what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”
St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said he plans on addressing and meeting with his team about it next week. He wants to have an open dialogue with his players, where they can voice any concerns and sentiments.
Villanova plans on taking a similar approach.
“We’re going to talk about that as a team this upcoming weekend,” Jenkins said. “We see everything that’s going on. I support what Colin Kaepernick is doing, sparking debate for our country in what has been a serious issue for our country.”
Wright has already met and spoke with captains already about the issues. They plan to have a team-wide meeting about this topic at some point in the upcoming weeks.
“Everybody’s opinion is important to me, and I want everybody’s opinion to be important to each other on the team.”
The Post-Coyer Era Begins for Women’s Basketball
When asked how do you replace the Coyer twins, Villanova women’s basketball head coach Harry Perretta had two simple words.
Katherine and Caroline Coyer have been a staple at Villanova for the last four years. As twins usually do, they complemented each other perfectly.
Katherine became known for her lockdown defense, often drawing an opponent’s top scorer. Meanwhile, Caroline could pour in basket after basket, shot after shot.
Perretta said that they are both doing well and are looking forward to the next chapters of their lives. They won’t be straying too far away from the basketball court. Caroline is a full-time assistant coach at Vermont, while Katherine will become a graduate assistant for Perretta.
Villanova finished 20-12 last year and made it to the second round of the WNIT, where the Wildcats lost to Hofstra.
This year, they’re projected to finish in the Big East, behind Marquette and co-first place preseason queens, DePaul and Creighton. The Blue Demons have reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times in a row, making it to the Sweet 16 in two of the last three years. They feature preseason Big East Player of the Year Jessica January. As for the Bluejays, they are coming off of a Big East Tournament final appearance. They finished 17-18 last season, but return 2014 Big East Player of the Year Marissa Janning, who spent all of last season as a medical redshirt.
With the Coyer twins gone, Perretta can rely on preseason All-Big East players Adrianna Hahn and Alex Louin, who proved themselves last year.
Last season, Hahn was given the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year award and was named to the All-Freshman team. She replaced Caroline after her season-ending knee injury and did well, averaging 16.5 points over the last six games. Hahn had a team-high 67 3-pointers and was nearly automatic from the free throw line, converting 90% of her attempts.
Louin was an All-Big East honorable mention last season, and is looking to elevate her game this season. She is the Wildcats’ top returning scorer, averaging 11.3 points. Louin can do it all–rebound, dish out assists, and play tough defense.
Aside from its veteran players, Villanova is also riding high on its freshman class. The Wildcats bring in five freshman, as well as two players who are now eligible after redshirting last season.
Kelly Jekot is the big acquisition from the crowded freshman class. She comes into Villanova after a great career at Cumberland Valley (Pa.), where she was a 2,000-point scorer. Jekot was named USA Today’s Pennsylvania Player of the Year. She also was named Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year in her junior and senior years of high school. For this, she was named the preseason pick to win Big East Freshman of the Year.
From now until the season begins in November, Perretta is just putting the pieces together.
“We’re just going to concentrate on trying to get this team to get together as a team,” he said. “It’s such a young team, therefore they have to learn how to blend together.”