The Villanova way is all that Kyle Neptune knows. As their first-year head coach, he’s now determined to make sure the next generation of Wildcats knows it, too.
Seven months ago, Villanova men’s basketball was right where it expects to be every year: the Final Four.
It wasn’t a vintage Wildcats team like the ones that won the 2016 and 2018 national championships, but it was a darn good unit. They won 30 games, the Big East Tournament, and 14 out of 15 games from Feb. 5 to the South Regional title in the NCAA Tournament.
Then, the program changed faster than you can nonchalantly say “bang.”
Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright announced his retirement on April 20, something no one outside of the program could say they saw coming.
Nobody could reasonably expect someone truly replacing the two-time national champion Wright. But if anyone can give a program in transition a sense of continuity, it’s probably Kyle Neptune, the guy the university hired to take over the men’s basketball program.
Neptune had just one year of head coaching experience, leading Fordham to a 16-16 record last season (8-10 in the Atlantic 10). That may not sound like much, but the Rams were perennial cellar-dwellers; Neptune had a real argument as the conference’s coach of the year.
And while Fordham didn’t have the same talent that Neptune was used to coaching at Villanova, his one year in the Bronx helped reinforce what he already knew — that Nova’s culture was the key to all its success.
“It made me stand even more tall toward the resolve of the Villanova mission and what we’ve done here and what we’ll continue to try to do here,” Neptune told Boardroom during the preseason. “I think what I saw, in the end, is that how much this way of coaching, this thought process that Coach Wright started here at Villanova, how good it is of a blueprint for how to run a program.”
Most of Neptune’s time on the college sideline has come at Villanova. After four years as a point guard an hour up the road at Lehigh, he worked as a video coordinator under Wright from 2008-10, making him a part of the coach’s first Final Four team in 2009. After a brief stint at Niagara, Neptune returned to the Big 5, becoming a Villanova assistant in 2013. He stayed there until 2021 when Fordham came calling.
That means 2022 is the only Final Four that Villanova has made since 1985 that didn’t include Neptune in some form or fashion — and really, you could argue he was a factor there, too, as he played a role in recruiting and developing virtually the entire roster.
“It’s been a comfortable situation for me because coming back here, you know all the people, you know all the buildings,” he said. “I’ve been around here so long, it’s been a pretty smooth transition.”
Once the games started this month, however, things suddenly weren’t quite as smooth. Down two starters, Nova is an underwhelming 2-2 with losses to Temple and Michigan State, and a too-close-for-comfort win over Delaware State as of this writing. But as Wright praised Neptune during his retirement press conference in April, he emphasized more than anything how important it was to keep the culture of the program together — to keep players from transferring out, to keep the assistants on staff, to keep the same air of confidence that has permeated the program for the past decade.
As it turns out, the Wildcats didn’t lose a single player to transfer after Wright’s announcement, which is virtually unheard of, particularly in the no-sit transfer era. On the sideline, Neptune retained every one of Wright’s assistant coaches from last year, as well as the team’s director of basketball operations.
“I can’t be him because I’m not him,” Neptune said of Wright. “But I will say that… a lot of the way I look at the game was formulated here. I think I’m uniquely Villanova, just from being here for so long.”
For the new coach, part of being uniquely Villanova means helping his players and staff develop personally. It’s the very thing that got him into coaching to begin with.
“For me, being a coach means you get to help people — young men — particularly through, I think, some of their most important years that will set up the rest of their lives,” he said. “I truly enjoy being a part of that process.”
Not surprisingly, Neptune does want to retain the culture that Wright created. Being “the guy who follows the guy” is never easy; even less so when your predecessor just brought the team to the Final Four, but Neptune feels he may have an advantage with this team.
“I think we are a pretty uniquely hungry team for a program that just went to the Final Four,” he said. “This is the first year in a long time that we’re not bringing back a leading scorer or a face-of-the-program type guy.”
That is, unless you include Wright, who was the undisputed face of this program.
That could be why the results so far in 2022-23 are so un-Wright-like. It’s not that Villanova never got upset in the past — this is college basketball, after all. But a 10-point win over a sub-350 KenPom team like Delaware State in which they only scored 60 points?
Well, it’s a new era, and there are going to be growing pains.
In the loss to Michigan State on Nov. 18, there were also flashes of the old Nova. Playing on the road against a team that had just beaten Kentucky and taken Gonzaga down to the wire, Neptune’s Wildcats were unfazed by a raucous crowd and didn’t wilt when the Spartans went on a second-half run.
“I’m really proud of the guys,” Neptune told reporters after the game. “We had a shot to win it at the end. I’m so proud of the way we grinded to have a chance to win at the end.”
Fortunately or unfortunately for Villanova, it doesn’t get any easier from here. The Wildcats have their eyes on Portland at the Phil Knight Invitational and are set to face Iowa State on Thanksgiving afternoon. North Carolina, Oregon, Alabama, conference rival UConn, and those same Spartans are all possible opponents on Nov. 25 and 26.
There’s a long way to go, but Neptune is steadfast. And if his players have the same attitude, then he’s doing exactly what he sought to do in maintaining Jay Wright’s particular essence and building on it in the years to come.
“My only goal is to make sure Villanova basketball keeps our culture, as a program and as a team, and to try to help push our guys to be the best team they can be at the end of the season,” he said. “If we’re doing those two things at a high level, I’m going to be happy with the results.”
After all, it’s the only way he knows.
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