VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Kyle Neptune did not get a chance to catch up with his Hall of Fame predecessor on the day he made his Villanova coaching debut. Neptune had a game to try and win and pleasantries with anyone — even a two-time national champion such as Jay Wright — would have to wait.
“I'll look for him after,” Neptune said
Neptune wouldn't have to look far. Wright was at the Pavilion enjoying civilian life with no regrets about his sudden retirement and shift into the broadcast booth.
Neptune's Wildcats looked like Wright's Wildcats, a good sign for a team aiming for another Final Four.
Caleb Daniels scored 24 points and made Neptune a winner in his Villanova debut in the program’s first game since Wright retired, and the No. 16 Wildcats beat La Salle 81-68 on Monday night.
“I get all the hype. First game. Big 5 game,” Neptune said. “All that stuff. All we think about is playing and coaching for each other. When you do that and think that way, there's nothing to be nervous about.”
The Wildcats looked stout from the start and returned three starters (a fourth, Justin Moore, was injured) from the team that lost a national semifinal game to Kansas.
Expectations have been tempered everywhere except on the Main Line following Wright’s departure. The defending Big East Tournament champion Wildcats were 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 spoil 74-year-old Fran Dunphy’s return to coaching. Dunphy, who had successful coaching stints at Penn and Temple, was coaxed out of retirement to lead the program where he served as co-captain and helped the Explorers to a 23-1 record in 1969 under Tom Gola.
Josh Nickelberry scored 22 points to lead the Explorers, who trailed by as many as 21 points.
“You miss the juice. The juice is awesome,” Dunphy said. “I'm sure I was rusty at some of the things I did. But it was great fun to be out there.”
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. Daniels made six 3-pointers and 8 of 11 shots overall playing in a mask because of a broken nose suffered in a late September practice.
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 Penn from 1989-2006. He replaced the fired Ashley Howard.
Villanova: Neptune played at Lehigh, began as a video coordinator at Villanova in 2008 and served as an assistant under Wright from 2013-21. He worked his way into the head job at Fordham and went 18-18 in his lone season. 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 works as a special assistant to the president.
La Salle: Home opener Saturday against Wagner.
Villanova: Another Big 5 game Saturday at Temple.
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