As a former player and assistant alongside 42-year Villanova head coach Henry Perretta, Denise Dillon says the lessons she’s taken from Perretta in her own career are “endless.”
In her first season as head coach at her alma mater, Dillon has applied those teachings from the past to move the Wildcats into the future of an evolving Big East.
Foremost among those lessons: “Continue to learn from your own players and your competition,” Dillon said.
“His knowledge of the game is so great,” she said. “Having those conversations, never thinking, ‘OK, I got this figured out.’ No. Always see something, learn, and you try to do that as a player and teach your players that, but it’s just as important as a coach.”
Dillon successfully brought that mentality to Drexel, where in 17 seasons she set a variety of records. Dillon left the Dragons after going 23-7 in 2019-20, Drexel’s fourth consecutive 20-plus-win campaign in her tenure, and seventh overall.
Now back at Villanova, where she was an assistant to Perretta from 1997 through 2001, Dillon brings that winning history and a familiarity with the approach that sent the Wildcats to the postseason every year since 2011-12.
Early into the 2020-21 season, Villanova is flourishing in its new era: undefeated, boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the nation at 55.3 points per game, and featuring one of the best scorers in college basketball, Maddy Siegrist.
Siegrist was an under-the-radar recruiting gem at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of this season that recruiters told her she may not play until her fourth year, in part because her “shot’s not good enough.”
Perretta offered the opportunity for Siegrist to play immediately after her redshirt season. All she did was 18.8 points per game as a second-year freshman, made 62 3-pointers, and was the unanimous Big East Rookie of the Year. Dillon said she knew plenty about Siegrist’s ability before arriving at Villanova; the versatile Wildcat scored 24 points in an overtime showdown with Drexel last December.
“Her versatility, first and foremost, jumped out — her ability to do so much,” Dillon said.
Siegrist can and will do so much, in fact, that Dillon said one of the key points of emphasis was not allowing the All-Big East selection to put too much on herself.
Playing “within herself in the offense” is one of the goals Dillon laid out, and Siegrist has responded with an average of almost 23 points per game through the Wildcats’ first six. More importantly, she’s done so on 54 percent shooting from the floor, an improvement of almost 10 percent from a season ago.
Meanwhile, the other side of the ball is a focus of Siegrist’s.
“Defense is something I’ve been trying to work on since I got to college,” she said. “Slowly but surely, I’ve been getting better.”
Beyond her play, Siegrist is also making the transition between two eras of Villanova basketball smooth through example. Dillon accepted the job in March, just as the world closed due to COVID-19.
A global pandemic isn’t the most opportune situation for a coach to acclimate to new players, and vice versa. Siegrist said conversations were relegated to the phone and Zoom until August.
“Camaraderie and willingness to do whatever’s necessary for each other,” Dillon said she gleaned immediately from her chats with the team. “You can sense that just through conversations on Zoom. They’re buddies.
“We brought in four freshmen and just embraced them immediately,” she added. “They really took it upon themselves to connect and get moving with conditioning once we did get together on campus.”
From a past generation of Villanova basketball to the future, Dillon has also been brought into that atmosphere of camaraderie.
“We’re so fortunate to have Coach Dillon here,” Siegrist said.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.