VILLANOVA, Pa. — — Caleb Daniels scored 24 points to make coach Kyle Neptune a winner in his Villanova debut in the program’s first game since Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright’s sudden retirement, and the No. 16 Wildcats beat La Salle 81-68 on Monday night.
With Wright watching, the Wildcats played in the opener a lot like the team coming off the retired coach’s last Final Four season. The Wildcats returned three starters (a fourth, Justin Moore, was injured) from the team that lost a national semifinal game to Kansas.
Expectations have been tempered following Wright’s departure. Villanova, the defending Big East Tournament champion, was picked third in a preseason poll. Villanova also earned its lowest preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 since 2008.
The polls meant nothing at tipoff.
Daniels made his first five 3-pointers and the Wildcats used an early 10-0 run to put away their city rival and spoiled 74-year-old coach Fran Dunphy’s return to the bench. Dunphy, who had successful coaching stints at Penn and Temple, was coaxed out of retirement to coach the program where he served as co-captain and helped the Explorers to a 23-1 record in 1969 under coach Tom Gola.
Josh Nickelberry scored 22 points to lead the Explorers, who trailed by as many as 21 points.
The 60-year-old Wright, who led Nova to two NCAA titles, was upbeat as he mingled with fans before the game and appeared at ease watching his successor almost seven moths after he cited a “lost edge” for retirement. About an hour before tipoff, Wright told The Associated Press he was happy he was back at the Pavilion.
“It’s strange but it’s exciting,” he said. “I’m excited to watch these guys. I know they’ve done a great job in the offseason. I popped in and watched some practices. I talked to them. I’m like a fan. I’m excited how to see how everything they did in the preseason worked.”
Eric Dixon scored 20 points and the Wildcats shot 54% in the first half — La Salle missed 20 of 29 shots in the half — and they were quickly on their way to a ninth straight win in the series.
La Salle: Dunphy inherits a rebuilding process and team that went 11-19 last season. He went 580-325 as head coach and led his teams to 17 NCAA Tournaments. He was at Temple from 2006-19 and coached Penn from 1989-2006. La Salle fired Ashley Howard after four seasons and a 45-71 record.
Villanova: Neptune played at Lehigh, began as a video coordinator at Villanova in 2008 served as an assistant under Wright from 2013-2021. He worked his way into the head job at Fordham and went 18-18 in his lone season — the program had 23 wins combined the previous three seasons. The 38-year-old Neptune already had recruited or coached most of the players on Villanova’s roster and easily had Wright’s stamp of approval. Wright still works for Villanova as a special assistant to the President.
La Salle: Home opener Saturday against Wagner.
Villanova: Another Big 5 game Saturday at Temple.
AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP–Top25