The surging Friars have taken advantage of the vast majority of their opportunities in recent weeks, but Saturday’s game at Villanova marks arguably the biggest opportunity of the year.
A win against the Wildcats would give Providence their 17th win and eighth quad one win of the year, a number which should carry heavy weight come selection Sunday.
Villanova enters the game having won five in a row as Saddiq Bey has evolved into a national name in his sophomore season while junior point guard Collin Gillespie continues to play a leadership role and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl runs away with the Big East’s rookie of the year honors.
Villanova also features a couple of local New England products though, both of whom have seen their roles grow substantially this season.
Jermaine Samuels was one of the most celebrated prospects in New England’s class of 2017 since the day he entered the high school ranks. He was the rare prospect who already had a big reputation in middle school and managed to sustain it throughout all four years of high school. A big part of his ability to do that was an adjustment to his approach.
Having been celebrated at an early age, Samuels played his first high-level AAU game before he ever played a high-school game and was, predictably, fairly cocky as a youngster. As he got older though, he developed humility, became known for his work-ethic, and willingness to take on virtually any role to help his team win. While he was widely recruited and nationally ranked throughout, this type of transformation isn’t easy for such a celebrated youngster to make but it was critical for his future college career.
When he arrived at Villanova, he joined one of college basketball’s biggest powerhouses featuring the likes of Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, and Eric Paschall among others (all of whom are now in the NBA). Villanova went on to win a national championship that season but there were 15 games in which Samuels didn’t get on the floor.
The naysayers began to chirp. They whispered that Samuels wasn’t as good as people thought and that he had picked the wrong school. Regardless of the fact that he was learning behind five pros and winning a national championship.
A year later, Samuels started 22 of 35 games, played 22 minutes per night and put up 6 points and 5 rebounds in his first full season in the rotation. This year as a junior, Samuels is now the team’s full-time starting forward. His physicality provides an ideal compliment next to the versatile 6-foot-8 Bey as he can defend multiple positions and consequently blend into Villanova’s switching concepts seamlessly.
Simultaneously, another prominent New England native has gone through a similar process. Cole Swider was one of New England’s top prospects in the class of 2018 and had also been a notable name throughout his entire high school career. Always an elite shooter, he grew about five inches during his high school years and had a terrific final season in the EYBL.
He too though had to pay his dues as a freshman. He averaged under 10-minutes-per game and saw 15 DNP’s during the course of the season. A difficult defensive transition was not unexpected, but what was a shock was that Swider wasn’t making shots as he struggled to adjust to far less volume and a quicker pace than he’d ever seen. He was 13-46 on the season from three, knocking down just 28%, and even struggled some from the free-throw line at 63%. Again, the naysayers chirped and mumbled about fit and being over-rated.
And again, much like Samuels, Swider has now taken a notable step forward as a sophomore. He’s started 15 of 28 games so far this season and has pushed his shooting percentages up to 37% from three and a team-high 86% from the free-throw line in just under 20 minutes per game.
The reality is that anyone who has watched the way in which Jay Wright has developed his program over the years should know that Villanova is not a place you go if you’re looking for immediate gratification. Sure, there are some exceptions to the rule, but, for the most part, Villanova has established themselves as one of college basketball’s best programs in recent years by building an almost unrivaled culture and by getting old in the process.
It’s very rare that a freshman comes in and plays a prominent role and if they do it is based all on substance and none on the hype of the high-school level. Current freshman Bryan Antoine, who was a five-star recruit and picked Villanova over the likes of Duke, can attest to that while Robinson-Earl, who was a consensus top-40 national prospect but still not as celebrated as Antoine, is the exception to the rule.
Are there places where Samuels and Swider could have gone where they would have had a greater role as a freshman? Sure. But instead they bought into that culture that Wright preaches about, one that is armed with a pair of national championships to its name, and in the process they’ve both become key players for one of college basketball’s best programs.