National title contender No. 4 Villanova opens with Mount St. Mary’s

NCAA

Villanova will open the season with a stacked roster and a legitimate chance to win its third national championship under coach Jay Wright.

The No. 4 Wildcats return four starters from last season’s team, which fell in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Baylor.

Villanova will host Mount St. Mary’s in the teams’ opener on Tuesday.

Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels are back for a fifth season allowed by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll join returning starters Justin Moore and Caleb Daniels.

Gillespie, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee just before the conference tournament, and Samuels had surgery in the offseason to repair a broken right little finger.

“It’s unique,” said the 59-year-old Wright, who recently was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “They’re kind of hungry. They were both out so long. Collin, he’s almost like a freshman, itching to come back.”

Gillespie wasn’t highly recruited, but he since has become one of the most valuable players in the country as a fifth-year senior. He wants to capitalize on his final season.

“It was rough at first, but it was my journey,” Gillespie said of recovering from the knee surgery. “I kind of feel like I was on the right timetable throughout the process.”

Villanova won national championships in 2016 and ’18 under Wright. A third title certainly is possible with such a strong mix of veterans and young players.

Wright was an assistant coach for Team USA, which won a gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics over the summer. While Wright was coaching, his veterans were leading the workouts on campus.

“Those guys know what we’re doing. Those guys are teaching our younger guys,” Wright said. “It makes practice a lot more enjoyable as a coach. You can be a lot more patient with the younger guys.”

Mount St. Mary’s was picked to finish third in the Northeast Conference preseason coaches’ poll.

The Mountaineers won the NEC tournament last season and earned their third NCAA Tournament berth in the past eight seasons.

Mount St. Mary’s returns four starters from last season’s team, which wound up 12-11 overall and 9-7 in the conference.

Mount St. Mary’s fell to Texas Southern in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament and excelled all season with stingy defense and a slow pace on offense.

Mezie Offurum, Nana Opoku and Malik Jefferson are especially key to any success the Mountaineers will have this season.

Coach Dan Engelstad led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017, a feat that earned him a three-year contract extension.

Engelstad began his coaching career as a 22-year-old assistant at Mount St. Mary’s in ’07.

“I had a crazy path to get back to the Mount, but now being head coach, and seeing the euphoria from our guys, it’s really come full circle, and now we want to push the bar higher,” Engelstad said.

He said he believes in playing difficult nonconference games, and it won’t get much harder than traveling to Villanova.

“We have played high majors, and to be honest with you, the way our team is kind of comprised, we’re built to play those teams,” Engelstad said. “We don’t care who we’re going to play. We’re going to try to win the game. We’re built for high-major games, we’ll play anybody, anywhere, and let’s have some fun.”

–Field Level Media

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