Freshman Cam Whitmore provides spark in Villanova debut

PHILADELPHIA — Cam Whitmore touched a basketball only a few times over seven weeks because of a broken thumb that delayed the start of his career that already seemed set as a brief one at Villanova.

Once he got his shot, Whitmore used his size and the physical skills that made him one of the top recruits out of high school to spark a Wildcats team in sore need of his intangibles.

“Honestly, I’m shocked,” coach Kyle Neptune said. “Normal human beings, they would have been just completely discombobulated.”

Whitmore had 7 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals over 20 minutes in his debut and Caleb Daniels scored 22 points to lead Villanova to a 70-66 win over Oklahoma on Saturday in the first game with former Wildcats coach Jay Wright in the broadcast booth.

The intriguing cocktail of Whitmore’s debut, Villanova’s slow start, Wright on hand as a broadcaster and the streaking Sooners in town made this college basketball’s biggest attraction of the day.

Wright wore a headset on the CBS broadcast for both his broadcast debut and the first collegiate game for Whitmore, arguably his most prized recruit over a Hall of Fame coaching career. Wright never coached Whitmore following his stunning resignation in April after he won two national championships and took the Wildcats to the Final Four last season.

Wright yielded the program to Neptune — his longtime assistant who returned to succeed him after one year at Fordham — and the Wildcats (3-5) stumbled early. They had lost four straight entering Saturday and were off to their worst seven-game start since 1991.

Villanova could have used Whitmore. He was a 2022 McDonald’s All American and the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year and could become the program’s first one-and-done player since Tim Thomas in 1997. Wright built a national power in the Philadelphia suburbs without a single player ever bolting for the NBA after one season. Most stayed for three or four, and Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are among the scores of players who reaped the benefits of collegiate success and NBA riches. Both players also graduated.

Whitmore missed the start of the season after undergoing surgery on a broken right thumb suffered in an early October practice.

“I’ve been itching [to go] since the day I got hurt,” Whitmore said.

The 6-foot-7, 232-pound forward had the crowd stirring from the moment he sat at the scorer’s table to check in early in the first half.

His thumb taped, Whitmore received a rousing ovation when he checked in at 14:18, and a step-back 3 for his first career bucket had the crowd of 17,079 going wild. Whitmore flashed his power and speed late in the half. He dribbled beyond the arc, skipped past two defenders and bump-and-blew past Jacob Groves for a twisting left-handed layup.

“That was love from Nova Nation,” Whitmore said of the ovation. “Since the beginning, they’ve been building me up.”

Whitmore’s delayed start hasn’t affected his draft stock. ESPN has him listed as the sixth-best available draft prospect.

Whitmore shook off mild pain in the thumb and played like a future star at the home of the Philadelphia 76ers, looking like someone who could get used to NBA arenas in a hurry.

“I’m in college now, so I’m worried about college now,” he said. “Try to win a championship.”

Grant Sherfield led the Sooners (6-2) with 21 points, and Jacob Groves and Tanner Groves each had 14.

Wright was back to his GQ Jay style in a suit after he shifted to casual wear during the pandemic. The 60-year-old Wright made a cameo appearance on the broadcast and flawlessly called the Wildcats “they” or “them.” Wright makes his debut as a game analyst Wednesday for the Penn-Villanova game on CBS Sports Network.

The Sooners, who saw their six-game winning streak end, built an early 11-point lead and were a handful all game until the Wildcats got hot down the stretch. Brandon Slater drove the paint for a bucket and a 62-61 Villanova lead, and Daniels went inside for a tough basket for a three-point lead.

Oklahoma’s Jalen Hill missed one of two free throws with 1:18 left, and Daniels hit a 3 to seal the win.

“Daniels just makes you pay. I thought Daniels just made some veteran plays,” Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said.

The Wildcats can only hope the first win with Whitmore gets them back on the path toward March success.

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