BOSTON – Jalen Brunson was the exception and not the rule.
Most freshmen don’t come to Villanova and stroll into big roles on the basketball team. It can be hard on high-level players who are used to playing a lot of minutes in high school, but that’s just not the way things work in Jay Wright’s program.
That, however, does not mean the coaching staff expects things to stay that way. The coaches’ goal is to develop their freshmen so that the inexperienced player in November becomes a valuable contributor in January, February and March. The when and how much basically fall on the player to determine.
At times during the 2017-18 season, true freshmen Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Collin Gillespie, and Jermaine Samuels showed flashes of being players who could provide bigger contributions to the Villanova cause. Untimely injuries or circumstance, however, stepped in just as each seemed ready to step up. It led to all three of them gaining a realization that even though their playing time was sporadic, there were other roles for them to play in a Villanova season that will continue in the Final Four this weekend in San Antonio.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience,” said Cosby-Roundtree, the Neumann-Goretti alum who played 16 total minutes in three Big East tournament games but has averaged 12.8 minutes in the Wildcats’ four NCAA tournament games. “I just come in and try to do whatever I can to help the team. If I play 20 minutes or I play two, as long as I do something to help the team when I’m out there.”
That was a message sophomore Donte DiVincenzo stressed to the freshmen. He told of his experience as a true freshman when an injury forced him to redshirt but he found a way to contribute to the 2016 NCAA championship team by pushing hard in practice as a member of the scout team.
“Donte talking to us really helped because he went through it and it has worked out for him,” said Gillespie, the Archbishop Wood grad who was part of the early seven-man rotation until a broken left hand forced him to miss eight games and had him considering a redshirt. “I think we [including Samuels and Cosby-Roundtree] all pride ourselves on making [the starters] work in practice.
“Our practices are really competitive. Nobody wants to lose. We’re all pushing each other each day to get better, and I think that helps everybody when they get on the court in a real game.”
Like Gillespie, whose 14.5-minute average led the team’s true freshmen, Samuels was just starting to find his flow when he also broke his left hand. After struggling early to find his place in the system, he had a breakout performance with an 11-point, 15-minute performance at DePaul in December. Unfortunately, he also came away with the hand injury that forced him to miss 10 games.
When he returned to action in February, many of the minutes that might have been his were going to Cosby-Roundtree (11.7 mpg.) and Gillespie, who came back in January.
“After the DePaul game, I knew I would just have to keep learning while dealing with the injury,” said Samuels, who averages 6.6 minutes. “It was, ‘What can I do for the team?’ I was going to do whatever I could to help my guys out.”
One, two or perhaps all three will likely see some time against Kansas in the national semifinal on Saturday. Who and how much time will depend on the flow and circumstances of the game.
“I’ll admit that coming from high school where you got all the minutes to having to take a back seat is definitely not easy,” Samuels said while wearing a baseball cap with a piece of the East Region championship net tied to it. “It’s not about me. It’s about the team. [Going to the Final Four] definitely makes it all worth it.”