July 7, 1997
1997-98 Villanova Basketball Outlook
Rebuilding basketball programs has been the signature of Steve Lappas' career as a head basketball coach. Twice throughout his tenure on the sidelines, the young coach has assumed the reins of a program on the decline, and guided it to success. He began in 1988 at Manhattan College, taking over a Jasper squad that had recorded five-straight losing seasons, including only 15 wins in the previous three years. After his initial season, Lappas completely turned the program around, climbing to 11 wins in 1990 and 13 wins in 1991. The following year, the program came full circle achieving 25 victories, then a school record, and a berth in the NIT. It marked the first time since 1977 that Manhattan had made a postseason appearance.
Lappas was then off to Villanova, where he would start from scratch again. The Wildcat program had not reached the 20-win plateau since the 1988 season, and was in desperate need of rejuvination. Lappas proved to be cure for the ills, restructuring both recruiting and coaching philosophies. After his first year, the 20-win season once again became the norm for Villanova basketball. Under Lappas, Villanova has recorded four-straight campaigns of 20 wins or better, won an NIT title, and captured the Big East Tournament and regular-season titles. His three-year mark of 75-25 ranks 10th in the nation, while his four-year record of 95-37 stands at 14th overall during that span of time.
That brings us to the present, and Steve Lappas is faced with a challenge similar to that of his debut seasons at both Manhattan and Villanova. Four starters are gone from last year's squad that earned a Big East regular-season title, a trip to the NCAA Tournament and a 24-10 overall record. That number includes leading scorer and co-captain Alvin Williams (17.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.8 apg), a full-time two-year starter at points guard, and first-team All-Big East selection a year ago. Gone also is four-year starter at center Jason Lawson, the school's all-time leading shot blocker and Villanova's leading rebounder a year ago (12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.1 bpg). Power forward Chuck Kornegay has also departed, a three-year starter who averaged 7.1 ppg and 6.1 rpg, as well as Big East Rookie of the Year and National Freshman of the Year Tim Thomas. Thomas, who departed early for the NBA draft, averaged 16.9 ppg and 6.0 rpg as a freshman.
All told, the Wildcats have lost 69.7 percent of their scoring output and 59.6 percent of their rebounding production from last year. Only three returning players have ever started a contest, not a single Wildcat returns with a double-figure scoring average, and no one has averaged more than 28 minutes of playing time per game.
With that being said, rebuilding would certainly be the operative word for Lappas, who can recite the definition with ease. However, every situation is different, and while the Wildcats are young, they are hungry and talented. The small core of returning players possess limitless potential, and the incoming freshmen will provide the necessary depth. Refueling or reloading might better describe the task Lappas has ahead of him.
"This team will be an interesting one to coach," Lappas said. "A lot of players must step up and assume new roles. I'm excited to see how they develop as the season progresses."
The heart and soul of this year's Wildcat squad would have to be Zeffy Penn (Sr., 6-6, 195), the only senior scholarship player. Penn was redshirted last season to provide leadership for the 1997-98 squad, and has built a reputation as being one of the finest sixth men in America. As a junior, he played in every game and averaged 4.7 ppg and 3.1 rpg in 17.9 mpg. This season, he will vy for a starting spot at forward, and will certainly make contributions not measured by numbers. He is joined in the senior class by walk-on Brian Noone (Sr., 6-1, 170), who is entering his third year as a member of the Wildcat squad.
"Zeffy is going to give us tremendous leadership," Lappas said. "He's a guy who has been through the wars."
The Wildcat junior class will be strong, with John Celestand (Jr., 6-3, 175) leading the pack. The Piscataway, N.J., native, is Villanova's only returning starter, with 24 starts to his credit at the shooting guard position last season. Celestand, jet quick with the ability to play both guard spots, is the Wildcats' leading returning scorer with an average of 8.3 ppg. In addition, he averaged 3.6 apg, and a team-high 3.7 apg in Big East Conference contests. After two seasons of playing behind Williams, Celestand should be the heir apparent to the Wildcat point guard position.
"John received some tremendous experience last year, and at times demonstrated just how good he can be," Lappas said. "That experience will do nothing but help him in the upcoming season to realize his full potential."
Joining Celestand for his third year on the Main Line is Howard Brown (Jr., 6-5, 200), who has 18 career starts to his name and returns with an average of 5.8 ppg and 2.9 rpg from a season ago. Brown started the 1996-97 season at the two guard position before Celestand took over, and possesses exceptional athleticism. A great leaper who has a flair for the dramatic, Brown is an asset to any team with his attitude, and should compete for playing time at the wing position.
"Howard had some terrific moments for us last year, and I'm sure there are many more to come," said Lappas.
A big man also joins the above guard duo in the junior class: Rafal Bigus (Jr., 7-1, 270). Bigus may be the most important player on the Wildcat team, as he possesses all the tools to become a dominant center in the Big East Conference. He returns after averaging 2.3 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 8.7 mpg last season, and has the offensive capabilities to inflate his scoring numbers this season.
"I am really looking forward to seeing Biggie play some significant minutes," Lappas said. "I feel that when he has the opportunity to play long stretches of time, he'll show the kind of talent I know he has."
Two walk-ons join the trio above in the junior class, Joe Jackson (Jr., 5-7, 160) and Chris Lee (Jr., 6-5, 200). Jackson becomes eligible this season after transferring from St. Michael's College in Vermont, where he was a scholarship player for two years.
In addition to the fine set of juniors, Lappas will look for further development from his sophomore class. Malik Allen (So., 6-10, 240) will compete for the starting job at the power forward position and has the potential to be a force in his second season on the Main Line. A product of Shawnee High School in Medford, N.J., Allen is a ferocious rebounder with solid offensive capabilities. He averaged 2.0 ppg and 2.9 rpg in 10.8 mpg. Allen posted career highs of 10 points and 10 rebounds a season ago.
"Malik will be a very important part of our frontcourt this season," Lappas said. "His ability to rebound and score will be much needed by our team."
Putting in a strong finish at the tail end of his freshman season was T.J. Caouette (So., 6-7, 215). The Winthrop, Maine, native saw quality time in the final five games of the year, posting a career-high 24 minutes in Villanova's season finale versus California. A deadly jump shooter with incredible toughness, Caouette is expected to be a valuable contributor during the upcoming season at the small forward spot. He averaged 2.3 ppg and 1.0 rpg in his initial campaign. Brian Lynch (So., 6-6, 185) also has an extremely bright future with the Wildcats, and will compete heavily for the starting spot at the off guard position. A great shooter who can also score off the bounce, Lynch was slowed down by an injury to his thumb in January and had difficulty in the remainder of the season. Now healthy and with a season of experience under his belt, the Belmar, N.J., native should be an asset to Lappas this season. He averaged 3.8 ppg and 1.6 rpg in 12.9 mpg last year.
The incoming freshman class will give the Wildcats some depth, always important in the tough Big East Conference. Johnny Holley (Fr., 6-6, 180) comes to Villanova from McKinney, Texas, where he was a standout performer, while Jermaine Medley (Fr., 6-0, 185) hails from Wilmington, Del., but played his senior season at Oak Hill Academy. Medley is a pure point guard with sizzling shooting ability who has the potential to make an immediate impact. Another guard, Marvin O'Connor (Fr., 6-4, 190) from Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia, also joins the fold. The Philadelphia Public League Player of the Year, O'Connor is extremely talented and will compete at the two guard spot for playing time. He brings a toughness to the table that few players possess. Rounding out the freshman class is Simon Ogunlesi (Fr., 6-10, 240), a native of Nigeria who has only played basketball competitively for one year, at Word of God High School in North Carolina. Ogunlesi will provide depth in the post.
"We are very happy with this year's freshman class," Lappas said. "We seem to have brought in a little bit of everything. Each one of these players will have an opportunity to contribute immediately."