In the fall of 2012 Daniel Ochefu arrived on the Villanova campus with little expectations or fanfare. In his freshman season Ochefu had to fight for time and averaged only 17.5 minutes, 3.5 points, and 4.1 rebounds per game. Yet under Jay Wright’s tutelage, Ochefu developed in his four seasons and improved his production in each season. In his sophomore campaign, Ochefu averaged 21.7 minutes, 5.7 points, and 6.1 rebounds per game. By the time his junior year came around Ochefu was a major cog in the Villanova basketball machine. He provided a much needed size and an interior presence, controlling the paint. With Ochefu controlling the interior, the Wildcat guards could exploit mismatches on the perimeter. And in his last game in the Villanova uniform Ochefu was on the floor as the final buzzer sounded and the Wildcats were crowned champions. Even though Ochefu entered the program with very little hype the 6-foot-11 beloved big man is leaving behind a gigantic impact and an immense void that needs to be filled.
One of the candidates that can potentially replace Ochefu is incoming freshman Omari Spellman. The resident of North Royalton, Ohio ventured to prep school St. Thomas More in Oakdale, Connecticut where he excelled on the hardwood. While patrolling the paint Spellman started to receive notice from college scouts and college coaches. For the scouting service 247 Sports and ESPN.com, Spellman was a top 20 recruit nationwide.
With that kind of size and talent, all of the blue blood programs tried to court Spellman’s services. Arizona, UCONN, and Ohio State wanted to secure Spellman and Kentucky was leading the 247 crystal ball predictions, as 71% of journalist believed Spellman would join head coach John Calipari at Big Blue Nation. In February 2015, Spellman’s junior year, he made his intentions clear and shocked many of the expert recruiting analyst when he committed to coach Jay Wright and ‘Nova Nation.
This is advantageous for two reasons for Villanova. For starters, Spellman was an early recruit who committed before the Wildcats went on their magical NCAA tournament run. It is easy for a high-caliber to commit to a national champion, but at the time Spellman committed to Jay Wright, Villanova had not made it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the last three seasons.
In addition, it was extremely important for Jay Wright and Villanova to show that they can take a prized recruit away from the traditional powers. It also helps to elevate the Big East because they have shown the ability to lure phenomenal high school players.
Unlike Ochefu however, Spellman is the crown jewel of the recruiting class for the defending NCAA champions. Spellman stands at 6-foot-9 and weighs 275 pounds which will be a tough force for opponents to stop. Depending on how Spellman develops, there can be a new weapon to the Wildcat scoring arsenal. While Ochefu was a solid player at ‘Nova he never developed into a dominant scorer with his back to the basket. If Spellman becomes a post-up threat he can command double teams which would create more space for the talented Villanova guards to operate.
Spellman also brings more than size to campus. According to the DraftExpress scouting report on Spellman, he has four major strengths. The first asset for Spellman is he has a 7-2 wingspan which is beneficial in three facets of the game of rebounding, shooting, and defending. The second is Spellman’s ability to rebound, especially on the offensive end and the ability to extend possessions is crucial in tight basketball games. Based off of the Prep Circuit statistics on St. Thomas More, Spellman averaged 9.1 rebounds per game in the 11 registered games on the site.
Furthermore, Spellman has the ability to face up defenders and create space to hit a mid-range to 3-point jumper. While the stretch 4 or 5 has become a valuable weapon in all of basketball very few of them have the size or tenacity of Spellman. On top of that, Spellman is not afraid to play through contact. The Big East has a reputation of being a very physical league and Villanova will have to carry the burden and honor of being the defending national champion. They will have a bullseye on their back and get the best effort from many, if not all, of their opponents in 2016-17.
There could also be two issues with Spellman unfortunately. Currently Spellman is facing academic issues and is cleared to practice with the Wildcats but not play at this point. According to Jay Wright, the NCAA is trying to determine when Spellman started the 9th grade. As a result of the pending NCAA inquiry, Spellman will not play in any of the exhibition games in Spain. As Jay Wright’s players have been able to steer clear of academic sanctions, this is unchartered territory for the ‘Nova program.
The second issue is if Spellman reaches his full potential as a basketball player and leaves Villanova early. In recent years, Jay Wright has obtained the services of those players that stay in college for four years and this year that strategy paid dividends. Spellman already has NBA size and scouts are sure to take a look at Spellman and evaluate his skillset. Now the best challenge will come when Spellman matches up with Jessie Govan of Georgetown. Govan has similar up at 6-foot-11 and 266 pounds. Govan is also projected by DraftExpress projected as the 30th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. A strong showing against Govan could increase Spellman’s stock or a poor showing against Govan could show Spellman’s limitations.
All of this however is yet to be determined as Spellman has not yet played a game for Villanova yet. What is known is the sky high expectations that accompany his monster frame with high grades from scouts. While Spellman’s story is yet to be written, one can hope for the absolute best and wish he leaves a massive footprint when his eligibility is exhausted for ‘Nova.
Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire
Looking at Villanova’s Non-conference Schedule
As with every new season, college teams look to retool and piece together what’s left from the previous roster in an effort to transition. The case for this year’s Villanova squad is a bit unique though. The defending national champions will take to the court for the 2016-17 campaign with a loaded lineup that features nine returning members to the roster including this year’s captains Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds plus the additions of two stellar recruits in big men Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter. Head coach Jay Wright has set his team up for a challenging road this year, with marquee matchups early that set the table for another incredible season of Wildcat basketball.
Here’s a look at Villanova’s confirmed non-conference opponents:
November 11 at Purdue
In the second annual Gavitt Games, the Big East pits itself against the Big Ten in a full three day slate of games. Villanova will visit the Mackey Arena in the first contest between these schools since 2012 when ‘Nova beat the Boilermakers 89-81 at Madison Square Garden as part of the 2k Sports Classic in an overtime thriller thanks to the help of a trio of threes from James Bell.
Purdue, who is coming off an 85-83 double overtime upset against Arkansas Little-Rock in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional, is hoping they can solidify someone as a “true guard” for a lineup that was haunted by a lack of one all year. Currently P.J. Thompson is the go-to. Thompson’s high school coach Noah Haynes of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis said in a Purdesports.com article that “[Thompson] is like a coach on the floor for us. He's pretty multi-dimensional as an offensive player. He's got the ability to shoot the three, to go past you or come off a screen. He's a tough matchup."
The Boilermakers will counter the surging offensive production of Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds with sophomore center Caleb Swanigan. Last year, Swanigan’s 8.3 rebounds per game put him in the record books for sixth all time on the Big Ten rebounding list as a freshman; a list that includes the likes of Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries, and Greg Oden.
Expect an all-out attack by the Wildcats early in the matchup, setting the tone against this younger Purdue team to ensure a smooth victory.
November 17 vs Western Michigan at the TD Arena for the Gildan Charleston Classic
In Villanova’s first appearance in the Charleston Classic they will take on the Broncos of Western Michigan University. This will be Western Michigan’s second go around in the Classic, their first since the inaugural in 2008. WMU finished 13-19 last season, thanks to a 3-14 mark in away games. It was difficult to gain ground in the Mid American for the Broncos since five teams finished with 20 or more wins (Akron, Ohio, Buffalo, Ball State, and Northern Illinois).
Interestingly enough, Western Michigan often mixes up their nonconference schedule well. They are the only school in Division I to compete in all five of ESPN’s basketball tournaments. This year’s WMU team is a young one: they only have three seniors compared to five freshman. This inexperienced lineup for the Broncos will have to prepare for the tough test against Villanova who has chemistry thanks to a lot of turnover from the previous year. Speaking of turnover, that’s one area WMU will need to focus on as they move forward with said young lineup. Their 1.0 turnover to assist ratio is fairly low, and a defensively sound ‘Nova squad will just eat that up in the transition game.
Anticipate a smooth sailing run through this game and the event overall.
December 3 vs Saint Joseph’s
This year’s edition of the Holy War will take place at the Pavilion and as always, will be a marquee matchup for both teams. Last season was a tight game-turned smooth W for the visiting Wildcats. The then #8 ranked team in the country controlled the pace and 18 point performances by Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart sealed the win. The Hawks will surely miss former star forward DeAndre’ Bembry and his offensive production, but junior forwards Jai Williams and James Demery are the likely fill ins for Bembry’s spot. Emerging sophomore guard Chris Clover has outstanding do-it-all ability and can guard all five positions. Expect increasing minutes for him this season.
Villanova has a superior squad compared to SJU, but these classic Big 5 matchups tend to draw physical, dramatic contests. All signs are pointing to ‘Nova pulling out a win in and starting off the Big 5 hot.
December 6 vs La Salle at the Palestra for Big 5 Showcase
Similar to the St. Joe’s game, iconic moments have come out of Philadelphia Big 5 games, especially at the Palestra. Also similar to the SJU game is the fact that Villanova took care of La Salle last season with a commanding 76-47 win and is set for a similar performance this season. Explorer head coach John Giannini commented on his squad’s non-conference opponents saying, “[Our] schedule features several traditionally elite teams nationally and other winning programs that annually compete for conference championships. This combination should provide us with many challenges and a strong strength of schedule for postseason consideration." With a program that is constantly looking to set solid footing within its league, top-notch non-conference foes force a team to compete early and often.
This La Salle roster has five players who have transferred in, with three of them being eligible for play this season after having sat out last year. Demetrius Henry is coming in from South Carolina where he came off the bench for the Gamecocks averaging 5 points and 3.5 assists per game. Orlando native Pookie Powell is arriving from the University of Memphis. The final redshirt player who is eligible this season is Philadelphia kid B.J. Johnson. Johnson, from Lower Merion High School, is transferring in from Syracuse despite receiving high praise from former head coach Jim Boeheim following the team’s tour of Canada in B.J.’s freshman year. Johnson’s father, Bob, was a letterwinner in his four years at La Salle (1986-1990) where he lead his team to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances following a 1987 run to the NIT Finals.
La Salle's main threat to Villanova will be posed by Auburn transfer and redshirt junior Jordan Price. One of 20 players invited nationally to the Under Armour All American Camp this summer, Price offers a body that’s tough to defend and a comparable shot that he can knock down from anywhere. A matchup of Mikal Bridges for Villanova versus Price will be one to look out for. Look for a lopsided win for the Wildcats at college basketball’s most famous arena.
December 12 vs Notre Dame at the Prudential Center for the Never Forget Tribute Classic
The inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic puts a double header of four iconic brands in college sports together on one night. Villanova faces Notre Dame in the first matchup, followed by an in-state rivalry that goes back ages with Penn State vs Pitt. The Villanova/Notre Dame game will be played right before the Army-Navy football game which takes place this year in Baltimore, Maryland. The event itself was started by the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund which provides education assistance for post-secondary study to financially needy dependents of the people killed or permanently disabled in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Fund has delivered millions of dollars in monetary support, and will ultimately contribute more than $100 million to families affected.
Head coaches Jay Wright and Mike Brey go way back to their days both coaching in the American East Conference (Wright with Hofstra and Brey with Delaware) and to when their current teams were rivals in the Big East. Both know the significance of playing in an event of this caliber as well. Wright noted in a Villanova.com article that the event means more than basketball to everyone, saying “We’re honored to be a part of the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic. To participate in an event that raises scholarship funds for the victims of the September 11 attacks means so much to our program and University. We’re also excited to compete against an outstanding Notre Dame program.”
Brey mirrored Wright’s comments with a nod towards the battle that will take place on court. "Taking on the defending national champion and a program of Villanova's caliber will be a great thrill and challenge for us early in the season,” he said. “We also are honored to participate in an event that will benefit the Families of Freedom Scholarship Fund."
With heavy-hitting teams set to hit the hardwood together, a lot of fans in Philadelphia will be watching. Medford, New Jersey native and proud St. Joseph’s Preparatory School alumnus Steve Vasturia, who grew up rooting for Villanova, will be again a topic of conversation. Another storyline headed into the contest is sophomore forward for the Irish, Elijah Burns, will be in the paint against his former teammate at Blair Academy, Tim Delaney.
The Irish, who return a core group of Vasturia, Bonzie Colson, and V.J. Beachem from last year’s Elite Eight squad, are going to be competitive as always, despite the loss of the powerful Zach Augustine to the graduation. While it wouldn’t be too much of a shock if Notre Dame steals a win on the neutral site, Villanova has the upper hand for sure.
December 13 vs Temple
In the third Big 5 matchup of the season for Villanova, the team will host Temple. The Owls, who are seeking revenge from last year’s blowout loss 83-67, will have to adjust if they expect to take down a near intact Villanova roster. If you recall from the previous meeting between the schools, the offensive production came from unlikely sources. Jalen Brunson dropped a career high 25 points after going 9/11 from the field. Brunson, son of former Temple star Rick Brunson, was on track to go to follow in his dad’s footsteps on North Broad Street, but was lured to the Main Line in the nick of time. On Temple’s side, freshman Trey Lowe also scored a career high in points with 21, as he hit 5 threes.
Senior Josh Brown went from top reserve to a go-to guy last year for Temple. The point guard started all 33 games and boasted the 10th best assist to turnover ratio in the country with 3.5. The smooth moving St. Anthony’s (NJ) graduate is a consistent player who is unselfish and active on all sides of the ball.
Since this game is on ‘Nova’s home court, it would be a surprise to see a similar finish as last year.
January 29 vs Virginia
The University of Virginia Cavaliers have been one of the top teams in the ACC and the country each year, but have been struck with some unfortunate luck come NCAA Tournament time. Case and point, last year’s number one seeded team in the Midwest region ran rough shot through opponents, winning with considerable margins against Hampton, Butler, and Iowa State, but fell by six to a 10 seed in Syracuse. Or what about the strange loss at George Washington for the second game of the year? Or maybe the three losses in four games to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Florida State? Maybe even the stunner of a loss at Duke could turn heads. Then again, the 11 straight wins from November 19 to January 1 would seem to counter that point. You could even point to the season sweep of Louisville ro the important home win against Carolina.
Needless to say, the Cavs had quite a weird season last year and it’s unfortunate to think this, but the losses of Anthony Gill and first team All-American-turned Milwaukee Buck Michael Brogden really don’t help the cause for this year.
One thing consistent from last year to this one will be play style. Coach Tony Bennett has a sound philosophy of a paced offensive and defensive strategy that has been a hallmark of the program. And it’s been effective too. Virginia took care of Villanova’s quick scoring ability and won by 11, 86-75 in Charlottesville. This season’s game will be at Villanova and will put both teams to the test right in the heart of conference play.
UVA has some Philly phl-air too. Freshman DeAndre Hunter is fresh off of a PIAA AA State Player of the Year award winning season at Friends’ Central. The Philly native was the main option for the Phoenix in high school, and was a highly touted prospect coming out.
Out of all of the nonconference games or Villanova, this would be the one they would most likely lose if they were to lose any. With that said, a lesser Virginia squad compared to last year will be a tough but good test for the Wildcats and Villanova will prevail at home.
Photo: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship