The new head coach of the Villanova men’s basketball team walked into the gym at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY, last Thursday — and for the first time in more than two decades, his name wasn’t Jay Wright.
Kyle Neptune wore blue and white sneakers, black sweatpants and a black collared shirt with a “V” above the left breast pocket. At six feet and 200 pounds, his muscular biceps tested the limits of his shirt.
After speaking with the 137 high school coaches in attendance about his defense schedules and practice drills, Neptune posed for photos with several coaches and chatted with them about Villanova basketball.
When the 2022-23 season kicks off in November, Neptune, a former Wright assistant and most recently Fordham’s head coach, will take over from one of the greatest coaches in recent college basketball history. Wright led Villanova to four Final Fours and won two NCAA championships before suddenly announcing his retirement in April at the relatively young age of 60. Nicknamed “GQ Jay” for his stylish Italian costumes and resemblance to movie star George Clooney, Wright led Villanova to eight Big East regular season titles and five Big East Tournament championships.
If anyone knows what Neptune, 37, is going through these days, it’s North Carolina coach Hubert Davis, who also spoke at the coaches clinic. Davis replaced legendary North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who led the Tar Heels to three NCAA championships before retiring in the spring of 2021. All Davis did was become the first man ever to lead a team to the NCAA championship game in his first full season as head coach. The Tar Heels defeated arch-rival Duke in the Final Four before losing to Kansas in the championship game.
“I have a passion and a desire to walk the same path as Coach [Dean] Smith and coach [Bill] Guthridge and Coach Williams…with my own personality and in my shoes,” Davis had said when he took over.
Now Neptune follows a similar path by taking it from a legend, and he will do it his way. There is only one Jay Wright and he knows him like no other.
“We’re just trying to focus on our team and try to be the best team we can be by the end of the season,” Neptune said succinctly. “Everything else is noise.”
Just as Davis took over an experienced team with some key veterans, Neptune inherits a Villanova team that doesn’t start over. The Wildcats did lose fifth-year seniors Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, and junior guard Bryan Antoine, a former McDonald’s All-American who switched to Radford after an injury-plagued career in the Big East.
But they return graduate students Brandon Slater and Caleb Daniels and redshirt junior forward Eric Dixon and have a core of young talented players in the mix, including freshman forward Cam Whitmore, who could be the program’s first real player since Tim Thomas. in 1997.
At some point, the Wildcats are also expected to regain senior guard Justin Moore, who averaged 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds before tearing his Achilles tendon leading up to the Final Four last year. Neptune said he didn’t know when Moore would return, but was speculating possibly sometime in December or January.
In the July preseason CBSSports.com poll, Villanova is ranked 16th nationally. In the recent Lindy’s College Basketball preview, the Wildcats were also voted 16th nationally and second in the Big East.
Neptune says Daniels, Slater and Dixon will anchor the grid, but the other two positions are up in the air.
“Caleb, Brandon and Eric are locks, we’re just trying to figure out our team from there,” Neptune said.
Neptune is especially high on the 6-foot-8 Dixon, who averaged 9.1 points and 6.4 rebounds last season and could be ready for a big jump.
“His body looks great, he shoots the ball great, I think he’s just in a place where he’s coming off, finally gaining a lot of experience and he’s basically been a goalscorer all his life,” said Neptune. “Now he gets the chance to fill that role.”
The 6-4 Daniels is now in his third season with Villanova after switching from Tulane. Last season he averaged 10.2 points but will be asked to play a bigger role without Gillespie and Samuels in the mix.
“He was a goalscorer all his life. He was a goalscorer at Tulane. He just wasn’t in that role for the past few years, now he’s in that role,” Neptune said.
The 6-8 Slater averaged 8.5 points and 3.7 rebounds last season while battling a hand injury.
“He’s more of a defensive man, a utility man, we’re going to look to him to score more goals this year,” the coach said.
The Wildcats also return a number of key sophomore players in 6-5 sophomore guard Jordan Longino and 6-3 redshirt freshman guard Angelo Brizzi.
“Brizzi is extremely talented,” Neptune said. “Most people have never seen him play, he was really impressive in preparation. He’s big, he’s physical, he can make shots, he can make decisions.”
In the 6-7 Whitmore, the Wildcats have a gifted striker with size, strength and speed who was named the Most Outstanding Player at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship while leading USA Basketball to a gold medal. He is projected as the No. 6 pick in next year’s NBA Draft by ESPN.com and would be Villanova’s first real since Wright was named head coach in 2001.
“Yes, why not?” Whitmore asked me rhetorically in June.
When asked what he would need to do to achieve that goal, he said: “Give maximum effort. If I put in maximum effort on both sides of the floor and get my teammates involved and do what I’m doing and just get a bucket, then it can happen. I think so.”
Asked to describe his own game, Whitmore said: “I’m actually versatile, I can do anything on the floor. I score on all three levels, involve my teammates, facilitate.”
The 6-2 Armstrong believes his future teammate can also be a one-off.
“Yes, I do and he is physically gifted,” he said. “He has everything, he can do everything in multiple positions. He has the athleticism for the competition, so he can definitely go once he performs his first year.”
As for Armstrong, who played in Saint Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, Neptune likes his speed.
“He’s a really talented young guard, extremely fast, probably the fastest goalkeeper I’ve coached at Villanova,” he said. “Extremely fast, extremely athletic, extremely intelligent.”
The coach also loves 6-4 freshman guard Brendan Hausen, calling him “probably the best shooter we’ve coached.”
“Give him 100 threes, he won’t make less than 90,” he said. “Not less.”
For all his team’s talent, Neptune will make a huge coaching leap of his own, from Fordham in the Atlantic 10 (where he finished 16-16 a year ago) to the Big East, where he will compete against coaches such as Creighton’s Greg McDermott, Providence’s Ed Cooley, Xavier’s Sean Miller, UConn’s Dan Hurley, Butler’s Thad Matta and Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway on a nightly basis.
“Whatever team you play with, be it at home or otherwise, it’s going to be a battle,” Neptune said.
“It’s a daunting competition.”
Like Duke’s Jon Scheyer taking over retired Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, all eyes will be on Neptune as he appears to be following a legend.
But he will try to walk the path with his own personality and in his own shoes.
“I think Kyle is doing a good job with the guys, especially this generation,” said Saint Peter’s Prep coach Alex Mirabel, who coached Armstrong in high school. “The team works extremely hard for Kyle and the staff who are there.”
He also pointed out that Neptune – and the team – will be motivated to prove that the Villanova culture, the Villanova brand, has not stopped without Wright, who now works as a special assistant to the president.
“Jay was a legend,” Mirabel said, “but at the same time you don’t want to disappoint Jay Wright, so you have to do everything in your power.”