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Villanova guard took hard road back to hometown, Final Four

NEW ORLEANS — He tested positive for COVID-19, then was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart and often a by-product of the virus. He couldn’t pick up a basketball from last April through September.

Missed an entire summer of working out. Couldn’t run, pass, shoot.

Heck, couldn’t even practice free throws.

Then the inflammation subsided and he was cleared to play.

Then he contracted the coronavirus again.

“All the things we feared that you test for, that you worry about young athletes getting, he got it,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “He missed so much. But to see how he came back this season, and see him playing to the level he is now, it’s awesome.”

Yep. Caleb Daniels has been through the wringer and then some.

He’s back home now, a redshirt senior and New Orleans native whose role in the Final Four has expanded beyond what was originally forecast.

The Wildcats, who meet Kansas in one national semifinal Saturday at the Caesars Superdome, will be without second-leading scorer Justin Moore (14.8 ppg), lost for the tournament when tearing an Achilles in an Elite Eight game against Houston.

Daniels played two years at Tulane before transferring. Villanova had lost a majority of its scoring off a national championship team. It needed players with his skill set.

Which is to say guys who make shots.

“I think the best way to describe (the journey) is a marathon,” Daniels said. “I never let the best or worst of me dictate who I was in the moment. I just stayed where my feet were, kept my head in it one day at a time. Honestly, that has been the story of my career.”

He averages 10.2 points and — in Moore’s absence — Villanova’s chances Saturday would obviously increase if Daniels can break out in front of family and friends.

Much like his sophomore season at Tulane, when his averages were 16.9 points and 5.3 rebounds. But then head coach Mike Dunleavy was fired and Daniels opted to go elsewhere.

Collin Gillespie is Villanova’s senior guard and emotional leader who’s averaging 15.6 points and 3.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists. And in 2019, he was asked by coaches to have a shooting contest with a visiting recruit.

It tuned into a game of one-on-one.

The recruit led 13-0 at one point.

“I was like, ‘Who is this kid? This dude can really help us,’” Gillespie said. “I knew right away he would be a good fit. He has grown so much as a player since he got here.”

Gillespie rallied to win the one-on-one game. Made every shot once gaining possession. He and Daniels would play four games and Gillespie would win three.

It didn’t stop Daniels, however, from committing to the Wildcats.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons he did.

Three years later, he’s expected to start in Moore’s spot when things tip off at 3:09 p.m. PDT.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for Caleb,” Wright said. “He’s just one of my favorite people as a player because of everything that he’s been through. … He’s the most amazing kid. You never saw him down. You never saw him frustrated. For him to come back here is really special.”

Daniels is home and in the Final Four — back to where he shined on the court and as a valedictorian at local St. Augustine High. This will mean as much to him as anyone and perhaps even more.

Went through the wringer to college basketball’s biggest and brightest moment.

Some marathon journey, is right.

Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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