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Villanova AD says embattled coach Kyle Neptune will return next season after two straight NITs

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Kyle Neptune will return for a third season at Villanova, where he succeeded Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright and followed with two straight seasons in the NIT.

Neptune is 35-33 in two years with the Wildcats and has lost the opening game of the NIT each year. The Wildcats — who won two national championships under Wright — lost to VCU on Wednesday in front of just 1,763 fans at the Pavilion. The smattering of fans who remained to the end chanted “Fire Neptune!”

Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson told The Associated Press on Thursday that while he understood the disappointment surrounding the program's falloff since Wright's abrupt retirement only weeks after he led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2022, he has not lost faith in Neptune.

“Kyle's our head coach moving forward,” Jackson said.

Neptune felt the heat this season as the Wildcats — once a perennial Big East winner and national title contender — slid into mediocrity and out of the national rankings.

The Wildcats fell out of legitimate contention for a possible at-large NCAA Tournament bid with a five-game losing streak at the end of January. They barely got by 24-point underdog DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament and were knocked out in overtime in the next round by Marquette.

Neptune downplayed the criticism throughout and insisted he didn’t hear fans that booed him at times this year during pregame introductions.

The 39-year-old Neptune served under Wright on the Villanova coaching staff before accepting the head coaching position at Fordham in 2021. Neptune went 16-16 in his lone season at Fordham.

Neptune, just Villanova's sixth coach since 1936, went 17-17 last season and 18-16 this season.

“I'm not going to sugarcoat things. Competitively on the court we have some work to do,” Jackson said. “We all know what the standard is. We lived it.”

Wright, who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2021, guided Villanova to titles in 2016 and 2018 and led the Wildcats to two other Final Four appearances. He went 520-197 in 21 seasons at the school and has remained a steady presence at Villanova games. Wright now works for CBS.

“I can't determine what would have happened if Jay stayed,” Jackson said. “The fact is, he didn't and we adjusted. Jay's one of the best to ever do it. I would never discount having him around leading to an advantage."

The Wildcats have suffered through injuries —- notably the last two seasons to standout Justin Moore — but opened the season building on a roughly $3 million name, image, and likeness collective that should keep them competitive in both the transfer portal and in retaining their own players.

“We've dealt with injuries, we've dealt with a major transition of losing Jay and a presence around the program,” Jackson said. “We've dealt with a lot of changing collegiate landscape issues. There's a number of factors that have led to change. We're ready to compete in that environment. But I don't think you can pinpoint one particular thing.”

The Wildcats opened the season in the Top 25 and showed some early signs of promise with consecutive wins over Texas Tech and North Carolina — two NCAA Tournament teams — and Memphis to win the Battle 4 Atlantis crown. But losses to Big 5 rivals Penn, Saint Joseph's, Drexel were inexcusable to fans and former players alike.

“I don't want to be naive and say I'm not aware of how unhappy a lot of people are,” Jackson said. “It's my job to pay attention to all of it. I listen to all of it. I ingest all of it. I know it impacts our head coach, too. It hurts him more than anybody else.”

Neptune said after the NIT loss that he “understands the frustration” but was ready to already start work on next season.

As for a 2024-25 season with a coach on the hot seat, Jackson simply said all seasons are big ones.

“To have somebody that understands where we need to be,” Jackson said, “I have a lot of confidence that Kyle’s the right guy and knows how to get us there.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball