VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Tyler Burton almost sat in the wrong seat at a press conference table - where he was set to discuss his 15-point, seven-rebound effort in his Villanova debut - when coach Kyle Neptune had to direct him to the correct spot.
“Rookie! Rookie mistake,” Neptune said with a laugh.
It was his only one. No turnovers, either, in 20 minutes for the forward who needed an asterisk next to rookie. Burton hit the 1,500-point and 750-rebound career marks in four seasons at Richmond.
Thanks to the transfer portal, Burton gets his chance to help turn the Wildcats back into national title contenders.
Eric Dixon also scored 15 points and TJ Bamba had 13 to lead No. 22 Villanova to a 90-63 win over American in their season opener on Monday night.
The Wildcats led by as many as 32 in the first game of what they expect to turn into a bounce-back season after a 17-17 finish in Neptune’s first year.
Neptune already faced the burden of replacing Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright. Neptune and the Wildcats then missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, tightening the pressure on Neptune to make a fast turnaround in Year 2.
So Neptune attacked the portal and brought in four transfers designed to make 2023 just a blip and not the start of a dip in the program. He nabbed guard Hakim Hart (11 points) from Maryland and Lance Ware from Kentucky.
Burton and Bamba (out of Washington State) rounded out the transfer quartet - the program largely ignored transfers in a different era under Wright - and both cracked the starting lineup.
“We've been together for a couple of months now and we've seen what these guys can do,” Neptune said.
The early returns were promising.
Bamba and Burton didn’t produce big point totals in the first half but did just enough to push back the Eagles (out of the Patriot League). Bamba made his only 3-pointer of the half - the Wildcats were only 2 of 10 on 3s at the break - for a 12-point lead.
Bamba’s second 3 of the game made it 48-33 in the second half. The next bucket? Burton hit his first 3 to inch the game closer to a blowout.
Burton no longer needs to the “the guy” like he was at Richmond - though Villanova would gladly take an 18-11 effort like he had when Richmond upset Iowa in the 2022 NCAA Tournament - and instead just play as a key cog in a traditional Big East power.
“The points will come,” Burton said. “You're not really out there just hunting shots. It's just great comfort just having guys play hard, knowing you can play hard and come out and the next guy will step up and do the same."
It was good news for the new faces at the Pavilion.
Dixon, a second-team All-Big East preseason pick, made 6 of 10 baskets. Justin Moore scored 10 points to open his fifth season, a return made possible in large part thanks to the program’s healthy name, image, and likeness collective.
American: Colin Smalls led the Eagles with 16 points. He scored nine in the first half to help keep the Eagles competitive for about 15 minutes. American, which finished 17-15 overall last season while going 9-9 on the road, pulled to 24-23 on Smalls' 3-pointer. The Wildcats then went on an 11-0 run and kept the Eagles scoreless for 4:16 to take a 41-31 lead into halftime.
Villanova: The Wildcats expect more big plays like the sequence that saw Dixon block a shot that led to a Burton 3 for a 64-37 lead and brought the crowd - including Wright, watching with his family - to its feet.
American plays Thursday at William & Mary.
Villanova is home Friday against Le Moyne
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