By : Rich Flanagan
VILLANOVA, PA- Jay Wright’s recipe for success early on as a head coach was the play of his backcourt. Players like Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, now an assistant on Wright’s staff, and Scottie Reynolds made names for themselves by flourishing in Wright’s vaunted four-guard offense at Villanova. He knew how to mold and develop composed guards who can take over games with their scoring and passing ability.
In recent years, that philosophy has changed. Sure, the premiere guards like Jalen Brunson, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Phil Booth have still been a staple but the added element of versatile big men has only elevated the Wildcats program. The emergence of the duo of JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu in 2014 gave way to Wright’s first national title one year later. Two years after, the impressive tandem of Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman, now teammates on the Golden State Warriors, helped secure a second title in a three-year span.
While all of them have moved on, Wright has done the same thing he’s done with guards throughout his tenure at Villanova: bring in new, talented players to replace the accomplished ones.
Easier said than done but he may have found an pair of big men who are ready to lead the Wildcats on another deep run through the Big East and March Madness.
Sophomore Saddiq Bey scored a career-high 27 points and freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl posted a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds as No. 23 Villanova enacted revenge of Big 5 rival Pennsylvania, 80-69 at Finneran Pavilion.
Bey, the 6-foot-8 forward who came into the game averaging 17.3 points per game over his last three, scored 16 points in the first half including five straight to cut Penn’s lead to a point early on.
Playing against the Quakers standout senior center in 6-8 senior AJ Brodeur, the Wildcats wanted to attack the skilled big man and try to get mismatches with different defenders. Bey established himself from the outset as it was something Wright and the coaching staff had discussed coming in.
“That’s all our coaches were telling us,” Bey said. “They wanted us to get downhill. They pride themselves in making us take contested jumpers. We work on that every day by posting up and going to the basket when we get the opportunity.”
The win came after Penn (5-4) had downed Villanova at the Palestra a year ago, with Brodeur leading the way. The Quakers win was the first over the Wildcats since 2002 and halted a 25-game winning streak in the Big 5. While Bey went at Brodeur, the Penn forward did the same with 12 of his 18 points in the first 20 minutes. He drew backup forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Neumann-Goretti) out to the perimeter then a quick pump fake and one dribble led to a layup and a 19-15 lead with 9:53 left in the first half.
Brodeur has played against the Wildcats four times, scoring in double figures in each game including his matchup with Paschall and Spellman in 2017. He always knows what to expect from the Wildcats bigs but has found ways to be successful.
“I think anytime we play Villanova, I know what type of guys they have and that they recruit,” Brodeur said. “I know I’m in for a physical game against guys who are more athletic and longer than me. That’s what I got tonight. I was expecting to use my footwork and things that I’m good at to be effective.”
Robinson-Earl got on the board with a tough finish inside to push the Villanova (6-2) lead to three. A triple of the ensuing possession from Cole Swider (seven points) increased the lead to 36-30, which finished as the margin at halftime.
The first half finished with two of the noted big men going back and forth with one another while the youngest forward of the three was just beginning to come around. Wright described what each brought to the table, particularly Brodeur.
“Saddiq’s size, skill and ability to put the ball on the floor were going to be advantageous to the game,” Wright said. “Jeremiah’s versatility basically makes him a guard. Brodeur had 42 assists coming into this game. He’s as good as any point guard in the country.”
Bey came out firing again scoring the Wildcats first seven points of the half to push the lead to 10. Brodeur had help in the scoring department from Germantown Academy product Devon Goodman (16 points) Ryan Betley (13), who missed last year’s game after suffering a season-ending injury in the Quakers opener. A triple from Goodman cut the deficit to 46-40 with 14:38 remaining. Robinson-Earl and Brodeur exchanged baskets on consecutive possessions then a steal and layup by Goodman had the Villanova lead at four.
Robinson-Earl, the 6-9 freshman standout and 2019 McDonald’s All-American, was playing in his second Big 5 game but felt he was getting a true taste of what the history between the two storied programs was all about by battling with Brodeur for 40 minutes.
“He’s a very experienced player,” Robinson-Early said. “He knows I’m a younger guy so he can exploit that but it’s a really fun task to guard him and gain that experience. He was scoring a lot in the paint and he’s smart with the ball.”
The Quakers cut the deficit to a basket for a three-minute span but the Wildcats always had an answer. A jumper by Goodman was answered by a layup from Jermaine Samuels. Freshman Jordan Dingle(18 points) scored underneath for Penn but Robinson-Earl came back with a smooth mid-range jumper. A dunk by Dingle made it 61-59 with 7:22 left to play but Bey added another bucket to his total 24 seconds later. Villanova slowed things down, executed and hit free throws to close things out.
While it may have been Brodeur’s last opportunity to battle the Wildcats, Penn head coach Steve Donahue couldn’t help but be in awe of what his star forward, who has scored 1,518 career points and grabbed 767 rebounds, has accomplished, especially this season.
“I think we all take him for granted,” Donahue said. “He’s played against Arizona, Providence, Alabama, Villanova and UCF. I’m not sure there’s a better all-around player anywhere right now. He would start for any team in any league because he does so many things.”
“I’ve known him since he was in eighth grade. I recruited him at Boston College. We wanted him there and he had a lot of high major offers. It was pretty obvious early on that we were going to ride this kid for four years.”
The Wildcats look to have found their next formidable pair of bigs and Wright is hoping it leads to another trophy, this time in Atlanta.