By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
Kyle Neptune said it himself: “I would be lying if I said in my quiet moments at times that it doesn’t cross my mind.”
The 37-year-old from Brooklyn doesn’t have much quiet time these days, but even he’s had the moments that many in the world of college basketball have had since the evening of April 20.
Jay Wright, who built and embodies everything Villanova’s basketball program and university stands for, won’t be walking out of the tunnel and to the sidelines when the Wildcats tip off a new season in November. That’s a seismic change in college basketball.
Instead, it will be Neptune, who at this time a year ago, was trying to build Fordham back up in the Bronx. Little did he know that soon he’d be in the head coaching chair of a program that’s won more than any other in college hoops in the last decade.
“I was as surprised as everybody else was,” Neptune told FOX Sports when asked about taking over for Wright. “It was just about as quick of a turnaround for me that it was for the public in terms of finding everything out.”
It’s nothing short of remarkable how well the best-kept secret in college basketball this past year was kept. Wright admitted that he could identify moments this past season when he felt as though his heart wasn’t all the way into it as it was in the past. He had to battle with himself on having that edge.
While Wright, his wife Patty and athletic director Mark Jackson figured out the plan going forward for the program after the 2021-22 season, all the head coach and his Wildcats achieved was a Big East Tournament championship run and a trip to the program’s third Final Four in six years.
Not bad for a season when you didn’t feel you were close to your A-game.
So yes, Wright at say, 70 percent was still better than the majority of the sport’s head coaches at 100 percent. If not for Justin Moore’s unfortunate Achilles injury suffered in the Elite Eight win over Houston, who knows? Wright could have gone out with another title.
But, that’s in the rearview mirror. Filling a Hall of Famer’s shoes is just not reasonable, but it’s a fitting move by Jackson and Villanova to keep the hire in the family and select Neptune, who spent 10 of the last 14 years on Wright’s coaching staff.
“I really feel like I grew up here,” said Neptune, who started at Villanova in 2008 as the program’s video coordinator after a year playing basketball internationally following his college career at Lehigh.
“I came here at 23 years old. A lot of my experience over the last number of years of my life has been here. The way I look at basketball, a lot of it was framed by being here and honestly, the way I look at life was being here. What this place is, I’ve grown up in, and I’ve absorbed it. Of course, I’m a different person than Jay (Wright). But that said, right now I have to be who I am, and who I am happens to be a lot of what Villanova basketball is.”
How fit is Neptune to be the head coach of the Wildcats? Take it from one of the great Villanova players of all-time, All-American point guard and two-time Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie.
“He’s going to get the best out of his players and put them in the best situations to be successful. Kyle is that type of guy who will push you to outwork everyone else,” Gillespie told FOX Sports.
The former Wildcats superstar is currently in recovery from a leg fracture injury suffered in late July just weeks after he signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets.
“He’s a guy that reads situations very well,” Gillespie added when speaking of Neptune. “When he needs to get on you and push you, Nep will do that. When you need some encouragement or to learn something, he’ll help you out too. I have too many Nep stories because I was with him for four years while he was an assistant and spent most of my time in quarantine with him in the bubble. We used to do workouts in groups, and he would compete with the other groups to make us tired so it would show who’s working the hardest.
“I think you’ll see that in his players this year, guys who are going to compete and fight on every possession. I think he’s a great guy for the job, a younger guy who has been around the program for many years as an assistant and knows what the culture is all about.”
In terms of what’s happened on the Main Line this summer, it actually hasn’t changed as much as one might think.
The daily routine is something Neptune, George Halcovage, Mike Nardi, Dwayne Anderson and the rest of the Wildcats staff has become used to handling in recent years. Why? Well, Wright’s USA Basketball commitments with Gregg Popovich and company meant he was spending the summers of 2021 and 2019 with the national team between the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year and the FIBA World Cup three years ago. That meant that Wright’s assistants were really spearheading the day-to-day summer operations for the program during those times.
“We’ve really gone about the summer with the normal process that we’ve become used to around here,” said Neptune. “Honestly, I don’t think it will hit me, and that change will occur, until the games start up.”
The obvious change, regardless of when it’s realized, is that Gillespie — much to the relief of Big East and college basketball coaches — has exhausted his eligibility. His classmate and standout forward Jermaine Samuels is also gone.
Most importantly, the player who many thought would be the de facto leader on the court for the Wildcats in the upcoming season, Moore, is in recovery from the Achilles injury. The star guard and All-Big East Second Team selection from last season could return in January, but the injury timeline for something as severe as his injury is fluid.
“I don’t think we’ll know any dates of when he could come back until at least January or February,” said Neptune. “We’re not going to rush him back, because we want to take it as slow as possible with respect to his playing career after this.”
So, for all intents and purposes, Villanova will have to forge on for at least the first two months of the season without a guy who could have been in the Big East Player of the Year race had he been fully healthy.
For a Wildcats rotation that was already short last season, and had been under Wright for the most part in recent years, that essentially leaves Neptune and company with three consistent returnees heading into this year that all will need to step it up.
Fifth-year guard Caleb Daniels should lead the way for Villanova. He averaged 10.3 PPG on 42% from the field and 37% from 3. Daniels, a Tulane transfer who entered the program in 2019, did increase his totals to 11.4 PPG in the NCAA Tournament, and Neptune believes he is ready to up his production and leadership.
“I think the first couple of years here, he was trying to find his way playing on some pretty good teams,” said Neptune of Daniels. “I think that culminated in the last couple games of last year where he really made his presence felt. I think he’s ready this year to continue the last third of this past season, where I felt he was really dynamic in scoring the ball, rebounding the ball and defending multiple positions. He can be the anchor to our team.”
Villanova will need fifth-year forward Brandon Slater to go from being an X-factor who can do the little things for the Wildcats, to someone that can be counted on to increase his production and stay efficient. Neptune brought up that what people don’t know about Slater is that he was battling through separate shoulder injuries, an ankle issue and other things, but didn’t allow that to deter him from averaging 8.5 PPG on 48% from the field while playing 30 minutes.
“It’s rare to find someone his size who can literally play the one through the five positions,” said Neptune of Slater. “His ranginess and athleticism just give us something we don’t have. He brings something unique to the table.”
The other key returning piece is center Eric Dixon, who is also a product of one of the key traits of Villanova’s DNA: developing players, and utilizing a redshirt year to benefit someone for the long term. Dixon, a redshirt junior, tallied 9.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season, highlighted by a 24-and-12 performance against Adama Sanogo and UConn in February.
“I think Eric can take another step this year. I think he can become a lockdown defender for us, and an anchor for us on that end of the floor,” said Neptune.
Senior Chris Arcidiacono is also back for his senior season. He averaged 9.5 minutes per game last season taking on reserve guard duties when need be.
As much as that core will be counted on, the single most intriguing thing about Villanova’s roster heading into this year is the new kids on the block. Wright built the Wildcats’ program on getting guys who fit his program and went through a learning process with his freshman to prepare them for a leadership role throughout a three to four-year journey. Now, Neptune learned from Wright and one can expect that to be the philosophy of the program.
But facts are facts: Villanova doesn’t possess enough veteran firepower to solely rely on their experienced players. The freshmen and sophomores are going to have to step up for this team to win at a high level.
There are minutes to be had, and five-star prospect Cam Whitmore will be counted on to make a significant impact this season. A player with one-and-done potential, something Villanova has not had since Tim Thomas in 1997, Whitmore is fresh off leading the USA Basketball U18 Men’s Team to a gold medal at the Americas Championship event. He averaged 18.7 points throughout the event including a 30-point performance in the gold medal game.
Whitmore’s teammate on the U18 squad, four-star guard Mark Amstrong, is also expected to play a factor for the Wildcats in the upcoming season. He averaged 10.7 points, 3.8 assists and 3.7 boards per game in Mexico.
“Within 30 seconds to a minute watching him, you just see what a freak talent Cam is,” said Neptune. “He’s extremely athletic. Great body control. What’s missed with him is how extremely competitive he is, and how much of a great person he is. We’re extremely high on what he brings to the table, and he’s definitely made his imprint on the program already.”
That is not something you typically hear about a player who has not even stepped on the floor for game action at Villanova. The undoubted Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year will be fascinating to watch.
“As for Mark (Armstrong), you have to be really impressed with his speed and athleticism,” said Neptune. “He’s way above the rim, attacking the rim. He’s extremely quick in isos and ball screens. I don’t remember the last time we had someone at that spot that was that fast, that athletic and shifty. He definitely brings a different dynamic.”
The other interesting piece to Villanova’s puzzle will be a sophomore class that, frankly, came in as a Top-25 recruiting class but was quiet this past year. That’s not on them as much as it was a reflection of the rest of the roster and the fact that you weren’t going to take others off the floor to play first-year players. But with that said, expect second-year guard Jordan Longino to come on more, and it will be interesting to see what forwards Trey Patterson and Nnanna Njoku can do as well as redshirt freshman guard Angelo Brizzi.
So, there are some questions to answer for Villanova, with the main one being quite simple:
Was the Wildcats’ success solely because of Wright, or can this machine keep going without him as the head coach?
It will be a challenging task for Villanova to keep up their streak in the Big East this season. Since the 2013-14 season, the Wildcats have won either the conference regular season or tournament title, and they won both crowns in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Heading into this season, a potential preseason top-five Creighton team stands in their way, and with a head coach as good as Wright and a point guard as good as Gillespie gone, the Cats could have some figuring out to do. But, they will not be the frontrunners in the Big East, although one could still expect them to be a top-three team in the league and certainly, it’s difficult to think Villanova won’t be in the race to win the regular season title or making a tournament run at Madison Square Garden.
As for Neptune and Wright, it won’t be like Scheyer and Krzyzewski, who said he won’t be attending any games at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the upcoming season because he doesn’t want to be a distraction.
“I would like Coach (Wright) around as much as he can be around,” said Neptune with a chuckle. “If he wants to be on the bench, he can sit on the bench. If he tells me, ‘hey I want to take this one,’ he can take this one. He’s earned that. Obviously, we all look at him with the utmost reverence around here. We want him to be around here as much as humanly possible.”
So, this is the steakhouse that has grown into an elite restaurant and done so by doing things differently than some mainstream commercial brands. The steakhouse has changed hands in ownership, but the owner has such a desire to ensure the quality and service stay the same that the ropes have been handed to someone he trusts so much. Will the restaurant remain in its top-tier standing?
It’s a fascinating question to ponder, because the fact that a small Catholic school outside of Philadelphia has achieved what Villanova has in basketball is incredible to begin with. Wright had a hand in everything.
Now, it’s Neptune’s turn.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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