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No. 16 Villanova begins new era in opener vs. La Salle

Sportsnaut
May 14, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Villanova head coach Kyle Neptune and recently retired head coach Jay Wright atria introduced before match between New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Kyle Neptune era will begin on Monday when No. 16 Villanova hosts La Salle in the season opener for both teams.

After a stunning retirement by Hall of Fame head coach Jay Wright, Neptune was tabbed as the replacement at Villanova. Wright won 520 games and two national championships in 21 seasons with the Wildcats.

“I never focused on not being him,” Neptune, 37, said of Wright. “He’s a Hall of Famer. To me, the best coach in college basketball the last 10 years. I would like to be a lot like him.”

This matchup against the Explorers is the first of four Big 5 games for Villanova, which will also play Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Pennsylvania.

After Neptune went 16-16 as the head coach at Fordham in 2021-22, he will now take over a team that finished with a 30-8 record and advanced to the Final Four.

In addition to returning standouts Eric Dixon, Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels, the Wildcats added a stellar recruiting class highlighted by preseason Big East Freshman of the Year Cam Whitmore. Per Neptune, Whitmore is not ready to play following surgery on his thumb on Oct. 9.

Villanova also is without Justin Moore, who’s still on the mend from a torn Achilles. Moore sustained the injury in the Elite Eight win over Houston.

The new-look Wildcats will enter the season with their lowest ranking since 2008. Like Wright, Neptune isn’t concerned with rankings or predictions.

“I’m not trying to say I’ll do exactly the same thing. It just so happens that so much of what this place is, I believe in,” Neptune said. “That’s why it will probably look very similar.”

La Salle will also begin the season with a new head coach and it’s a familiar name in Big 5 circles.

Fran Dunphy, 74, takes over his third Big 5 program after previous successful stints at Temple and Pennsylvania. Dunphy, the only coach to lead three Big 5 programs, has advanced to the NCAA Tournament 17 times.

Rebuilding the Explorers (11-19, 5-13 Atlantic 10) will be a challenge, one that Dunphy couldn’t refuse.

“I wouldn’t have come back for any other school, to be honest with you,” Dunphy said. “It wasn’t what I was thinking about.”

La Salle hasn’t finished with a winning record since going 17-16 in 2014-15. The Explorers haven’t moved above .500 in the Atlantic 10 in 10 years when they were one of the last teams selected for the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2013.

“Every year you get a little bit wiser,” Dunphy said. “I’m reluctant to say smarter, because I’m not sure I’m any smarter. But you get wiser. You listen more.”

Look for Josh Nickelberry to take a leadership role after averaging 11.2 points per game last season.

La Salle also added key transfers Fousseyni Drame and Hassan Drame, who were part of the magical Elite Eight run by Saint Peter’s.

Last season, the Explorers finished 12th in the conference in 3-point percentage and 3-point percentage defense.

–Field Level Media