VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Jeremiah Robinson-Earl became one of the handful of Villanova freshmen to start an opener in 19 seasons under Jay Wright.
Robinson-Earl led a new-look Villanova to a familiar rout, with 24 points and 13 rebounds in the No. 10 Wildcats' 97-54 win over Army on Tuesday night.
"I can't say I was surprised," Wright said. "I'm impressed with his maturity and his basketball IQ."
Robinson-Earl was considered one of the top 15 recruits in the nation and is the son of former Kansas Jayhawk Lester Earl. The Kansas native finished his prep career at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Robinson-Earl made 9 of 14 shots (with five turnovers) and proved Wright was correct in giving the hyped freshman the start.
"I wasn't really thinking about how I did," Robinson-Earl said.
He certainly gave Army plenty to worry about.
The Wildcats had their five-year run as the preseason Big East favorite end this season but outranked Seton Hall by two spots in the Top 25. Villanova played like a team worthy of national championship contention against overwhelmed Army.
These aren't the Wildcats that were 30-win regulars and won national titles in 2016 and 2018. Most of the stars of those teams have moved on to the NBA — rookie Eric Paschall scored 34 points for Golden State on Monday — and the Wildcats have one of the youngest teams in Wright's 19 seasons. The Wildcats lost their two leading scorers from last season in Paschall and Phil Booth, and the underclassmen are being counted on to carry them into March. Justin Moore and Robinson-Earl gave Villanova two freshman in the starting lineup for the first time since 2002-03.
Robinson-Earl, the preseason Big East Freshman of the Year, was sensational in his debut and scored 15 points by the break. The Wildcats treated this one like a glorified scrimmage, but they played with a dose of ruthless aggression that should overcome any concerns over inexperience. They went on a 16-0 run in the first half, raced to a 31-point lead and led 49-26 at the break.
The Wildcats had two freshman start opening night for the first time since Allan Ray, who was at the game, and Randy Foye in 2002. The Wildcats were still in their formative years of becoming an elite program under Wright when Ray and Foye were starters. Robinson-Earl and Moore got the nods for a perennial Big East contender.
"It's different starting these two because everyone in the program knows what they're doing," Wright said. "They have some guys around them."
Villanova finished at the basket, buried 3s and shared the ball (12 assists on 18 first-half baskets) in a fantastic opener for the program's 100th season. Cole Swider scored 18 points and hit four of Villanova's 12 3-pointers. Saddiq Bey had 22 points.
Bobby Knight coached Army on March 19, 1966, in the consolation game of the NIT the last time these two teams met. The Black Knights could have gone another 53 years without having to play the Wildcats. Tommy Funk and Tucker Blackwell led Army with 15 points.
Army: Closed the first half on a 10-3 run. ... Better days should be ahead for the Black Knights, picked to finish sixth in Patriot League preseason poll. Army has either played to or exceeded its preseason predicted finish in each of the last four seasons. ... Shot 31% from the floor.
Villanova: Collin Gillespie scored 11 points and played with a protective mask to protect a broken nose suffered in practice. ... The Wildcats have started 10 freshmen on opening night since 2002.
Army: Plays Friday against the Merchant Marine Academy.
Wildcats: At No. 18 Ohio State on Nov. 13.