Well, the pandemic has certainly impacted the sports world in many ways. From consistent NFL and CFB games being postponed due to positive COVID test results to half of an NBA season being played in a “bubble” separated from the outside world. As a society, we continue to implement whatever measures we can to try to salvage the pleasures of watching our favorite teams while also trying to keep our athletes as safe as possible in an effort to try to keep scheduling start dates on track as if it were a COVID-free world. The NCAA has outlined rigorous ways in which they are addressing the matter so as to get the student-athletes back on the court including testing officials at a minimum of three times a week, increasing communication protocols between schools and implement more stringent traveling rules. With all of these adequate preparations installed, the NCAA feels it is appropriate to proceed forward with the 20-21 season and, more importantly, give a nod to the Eagles to play their first match of the season in the Empire Classic against #3 Villanova.
History of the Empire Classic and This Year’s Tournament
The Empire Classic began in 1997 and was moved from the Atlantic City Convention Center in NJ to the Mohegan Sun Arena in 1998 where it has remained ever since. In 2019, the tournament was organized specifically to benefit the Wounded Warriors Project. Boston College has made an appearance in this event one time prior in 2013 where they lost by one field goal to the Shabazz Napier led UConn Huskies who ended up coming out victors in the tournament that year. This year’s event was scheduled to include four teams from four different conference: Villanova, Boston College, Arizona State, and Baylor. Of course, to no surprise given the trend of 2020 in the world of sports, Arizona State opted to withdraw from the contest after news broke that Baylor’s head coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19. As of the writing of this article, ASU still plans to travel to Mohegan Sun this week, but their playing in the tournament remains TBD. Obviously, however ASU and Baylor decide to proceed could alter the outcome and seeding of the tournament. As of now, it is still a “play ball” kind of mentality and no cancellations to the BC-Villanova game have come to light.
Previewing the Villanova Wildcats
It is no surprise to the College Basketball world that the Wildcats are, well, really good. They are currently in the hunt for their third national championship since 2016 and have +700 odds in Vegas to win the big dance come March. Let’s analyze a few reasons as to why college basketball pundits are riding the coattails of another successful Jay Wright campaign.
Rumors flurried about Jay Wright’s potential candidacy as the 76ers new head coach during the offseason, but Wright shot down speculation of the promotion by stating that he is very “happy and honored to coach at Villanova”. And who is the blame him with the success he has had. Not to mention the strong backcourt and front-court he will bringing into this year as well.
While the Wildcats do have to replace their star scorer Saddiq Bey who went 19th overall in the 2020 draft to the Detroit Pistons, it should not come as much of a hinderance for Wright’s squad as there are a plethora of players that can fill Bey’s void with 80% of their starting lineup returning this season. Expect to see Collin Gillespie take over Bey’s scoring role after a strong Junior season where he finished with 15.1 PPG, 4.5 APG and 3.7 RPG. He will also be working in tandem with Freshman stand-out Justin Moore who finished his first collegiate campaign notching 11.1 PPG, 1.9 ASP, and 3.1 RPG. Gillespie seemingly keeps the ball on a string and is able to dish it smoothly and effectively so do not be surprised if these two become one of the most dangerous backcourts in college basketball.
In the front court, Villanova returns the trees of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Jermaine Samuels. After dipping his toes in NBA waters in the offseason, Robinson opted to return to the Wildcats to boost his stock for potentially next year’s draft after quite a head-turning Freshman campaign where he averaged just shy of a double-double ( 10.7 PPG, 9.4 RPG). Combined with Samuels, the two averaged 21.2 points and 15 Rebounds per game. Both of these guys are premier post-players and not ones to really leak out for a mid-range jumper, but hey, that is what they clearly excel at and fit well within Wright’s lineup construction. Expect them to play alongside Cole Swider who will look to get more run time with Bey’s departure. He is someone who did not post bad numbers last year either in the 15 games he started where he averaged 18.1 MPG (6.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG).
Overall, with the return of some veterans and talented players to the Villanova roster this year, the Wildcats rightfully so should be perceived as one of the top threats in college basketball. They fit the mold for a classic championship caliber team with players specializing in shooting, rebounding and sharing the rock effectively. Furthermore, there should be no hesitation in questioning Wright’s ability to strengthen the team’s chemistry as record shows he has been able to glue the pieces of his team together effectively time-and-time again.
The Outlook for the Eagles
Switching gears, it is time to look at the Eagles in this matchup. It would not be a shock to anyone to say that this is not going to be a cake walk of a matchup. In fact, it would be a huge surprise to the college basketball world if they were able to muster together an upset. Not to mention there are so many unknowns as to how Christian is going to build out his lineup in preparation for the match. One of the main things to look out for is seeing how Christian constructs his frontcourt in order to slow the rebound successes of Robinson and Samuels, especially now that Nic Popovic has moved on from the Heights. Expect Steffon Mitchell to do a lot of the dirty work but by no means can he be heralded as a “One-Man Wrecking Crew” against one of the best frontcourts in College Basketball. This is where James Karnik, the recent transfer from Lehigh, will have to show what he is capable of right out of the gate against a top-tier opponent as this surely is not the Patriot League anymore. He will have to use his large frame to plug up the paint and contest any put-back opportunities.
On the backcourt side, there are certainly silver linings for the Eagles. The main being the return of Wynston Tabbs who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Tabbs impressed many his Freshman year putting up 13.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG and shooting 44% from the field with some athletic takes to the cup. What remains to be seen is if he will be plugged back into the point or if that is now Jay Heath’s role after his strong Freshman season where he put up similar numbers to Tabbs (13.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 43 FG%). Nonetheless, putting these guys in tandem could be the backcourt that Christian was hoping to attain since the glory days of Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman. Furthermore, there is a ton of depth at the guard position to work with as transfers Rich Kelly (Quinnipiac) and Makai Ashford Langford (Providence) will also be competing for minutes.
In conclusion, there are a lot of pieces at play here for Coach Christian to work with and it’s no telling what exactly he has in store for the first game of the season. Either way, it is a certainty that this is not going to be an easy one to put in the ‘W’ column as it will require a team effort, limited mistakes/turnovers and damn near-flawless execution on the offensive side of the ball. All areas that the Eagles have struggled with in the past.
As of the writing of this article, the consensus thus far is that Boston College is opening up as a +14 point underdog. If I were a betting man, I would say put your money on Villanova covering. There are just so many unknowns for the Eagles in what the arsenal will be that Coach Christian rolls out. Villanova is also returning some experienced talent on both sides of the floor who all have their fair share of playing time in some big time moments and this certainly is not one of them.
Final: Villanova 88 Boston College 68