Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and the Villanova season that almost didn't happen | Bob Ford

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Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, very nearly took a redshirt season after leg surgery. He has instead become a big part of Villanova’s run to the Final Four.

It was late October and time to decide on Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward who had great basketball potential but a long way to go with the Villanova Wildcats.

Would it be better for the team and for Cosby-Roundtree — “Da-Da” to his coaches and teammates — to sit out a season as a redshirt? He needed to fill out a little and he needed to learn to play defense at this level and shave some of the rough spots from his game. It would probably be the best idea, but still.

“He played his senior year in high school with stress fractures in his shin, and got surgery in June, so he didn’t get to practice with us in the summer. He came back in the fall after the other guys had practiced all summer and he was so far behind,” coach Jay Wright said. “But each day he kept getting better and better, and when the decision time came it wasn’t easy, but we said, ‘You know what? If he keeps going at this pace, he’s going to help us.’”

Wright might not have predicted the help would fully arrive in an NCAA tournament game to reach the Final Four, but that’s very nearly the exact truth. Cosby-Roundtree contributed all season at the bottom of the Villanova rotation, along with fellow freshman, Collin Gillespie, but it was in dribs and drabs. He is fluid around the basket, with a better handle than one would expect for a big man, and remained a bit of a project when it came to defense and rebounding.

Fast forward to last Sunday in Boston against Texas Tech. The Wildcats were struggling offensively and had to limit the playing time of swingman Mikal Bridges, who had picked up two personal fouls. Shots would fall eventually — they actually didn’t — but the first job was defense and rebounding, and Cosby-Roundtree was in the game.

“When my number was called, I just wanted to play with energy and do something so I could stay on the floor,” he said. “I was just trying to go get every rebound. In practice, I try to do the same thing. Go get every rebound, smack it to the teams, do whatever I can to help out. My best game? It was definitely one of my playing-hard games. I’d say I played hard.”

When the first half ended, Cosby-Roundtree had scored four points, all from the foul line, as he got inside and banged around. More important, he grabbed seven rebounds in the half, including five on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive and keep the ball away from Texas Tech.

“He was huge in that game,” Wright said. “Huge.”

To get where he is now, Cosby-Roundtree, who starred in the city for Neumann-Goretti, didn’t just have to overcome the tibial fractures and the late start to his freshman season; he had to endure what even Wright admits was harsh coaching.

“He’s one of those guys who needs to be pushed and I worried about it,” Wright said. “I said to our assistants, ‘I love this kid. I don’t want to break this kid, but if he’s going to help us, he needs to be pushed.’ And he never broke and he just kept getting better and better. It’s a real tribute to how he was raised and coached in high school. He can take hard coaching, man.”

Cosby-Roundtree’s teammates supported him and picked him up when he was down, but the player ultimately had to make his own way.

“He doesn’t complain about anything,” guard Jalen Brunson said. “Coach pushes all of us, and for Da-Da it was definitely a learning experience. It wasn’t easy, but he took it well. As teammates, we made sure he knew it would help us as a team and … we’ve all been there. I’m still there. Coach is always pushing us to be the best we can be.”

“It’s a good thing,” Cosby-Roundtree said, “but even to this day, he’s on me about everything. There were some bad days and some really good days. You take the bad with the good. I was taught early in my basketball career that if a coach says something to you, that’s a good thing. When they don’t talk to you is when you have to be worried. I’m glad he’s on me. I’m seeing improvement.”

There are, at most, two more games left to get better this season and a couple of practices. But one thing Wright likes is that his team is not only playing its best basketball right now, but it is still improving. That’s particularly true for the younger players like Cosby-Roundtree.

“Jalen Brunson’s not going to improve much this week, but I can still see Dhamir improve a lot each day,” Wright said. “Our youth is a part of this team in a really good way. They’re excited.”

It is easy to be excited as a college basketball player on the court in the last weekend of March. It’s easy to feel good that hard work has paid off. For Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, this is a season that almost didn’t happen. Both the player and the coach are happy it did right now.