Villanova freshman forward Omari Spellman and redshirt junior Mikal Bridges huddle after an intense play against Xavier.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Khaaliq Van-Otoo, Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Alabama (20-15 overall, 8-10 conference)
Freshman guard Collin Sexton (19.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, .446FG%, .338 3P%)
Junior forward Donta Hall (10.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.1 BPG, .728 FG%)
Freshman guard John Petty (10.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, .396 FG%, .376 3P%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Dazon Ingram (9.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, .428 FG%, .284 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Crimson Tide started the season in dominating fashion, winning four of their first five games by double-digits. Over the next few weeks they fell into a web of inconsistency in which they dropped games to tough competition like Minnesota, Arizona, and Texas, failing to win consecutive games until early January. They went on a four-game win streak after that stretch, including a victory over #17 ranked Auburn, before trading wins and losses down the stretch. They would struggle heading into the SEC tournament, losing four straight games to finish out the regular season. However, tides would turn and the Crimson Tide caught fire during the SEC conference tournament, winning their first two games to advance to the semifinals, where they fell to Kentucky. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Alabama defeated Virginia Tech in a wire-to-wire game.
Villanova (31-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .536 FG%, .418 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (17.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.6 SPG, .520 FG%, .435 3P%, .851 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, .471 FG%, .387 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.9 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.8 APG, .460 FG%, .403 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, .481 FG%, .440 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat No. 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round.
What Villanova must do to win:
Villanova defeated Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament doing what they do best: converting from beyond the arc. The Wildcats shot 51.9% (14-27 3PM-A) from three against the Highlanders and if they want to move on to the Sweet 16, they’ll need to continue to drill threes versus Alabama. Villanova also had six players in double-figures in their first round victory, including 10 points from freshman big Dhamir ‘DaDa’ Cosby-Roundtree, who only averages 3.3 points per game. The Wildcats have six players who average double digits, a huge part of their success, so if they can get some scoring from role players like Cosby-Roundtree against Alabama then they’ll be well on their way to making a Sweet 16 appearance. One player that the Wildcats must pay particular attention to is Alabama freshman guard Collin Sexton. Sexton scored a team-high 25 points (21 points in the second half) against Virginia Tech in the first round to help Alabama advance. Sexton is a potential NBA lottery pick if he declares for the 2018 draft so the Wildcats must contain him and make sure he isn’t able to dictate the tempo of the game. He has carried the Crimson Tide in many games in the past and the Wildcats will have to work hard to avoid that same treatment.
What Alabama must do to win:
Alabama won their first NCAA tournament game in 12 years against Virginia Tech in large part due to the play of their star guard Collin Sexton. Sexton scored 25 points (7-14 FGM-A, 10-14 FTM-A) against Virginia Tech to help Alabama win by three points. If Alabama wants to win against Villanova, they’ll need Sexton to be at his best. Sexton’s athletic ability and playmaking skills make him one of the most dynamic players in the country. In addition, the Crimson Tide will need junior forward Donta Hall (10.9 ppg) and freshman guard John Petty (scored 20 points against Virginia Tech) to step up against the Wildcats. On defense, Alabama will need to force Villanova off their spots from behind the arc and contest every shot they take. If Sexton can deliver a dominant performance, along with teammates Hall and Petty producing on offense, and Alabama forces ‘Nova into tough shots, then the Crimson Tide will have a good chance at beating the Wildcats.
Omari Spellman vs. Donta Hall
A lot of people will point to the potential matchup between star guards Jalen Brunson and Collin Sexton as the decider in this game. However, they will both score their points and be productive on Saturday, just like they’ve done in most games this year. That’s why the key of this game will be the battle of the big men. Omari Spellman has been a huge part of Villanova’s offensive success this year. The 6-foot-9, 245 pound freshman provides the Wildcats with a different dynamic than they have had in recent seasons. He has polished post moves, with a strong ability to face up and shoot the three at a 40% clip. Thanks to his skillset he is perfect in pick-and-roll situations with Brunson.
Alabama’s Donta Hall matches up relatively well with Spellman at 6-foot-9, 232 pounds. He holds a defensive rating of 95.5 (seventh in SEC), a defensive box plus-minus of 6.7 (fifth in SEC), and a block percentage of 9.4 (fourth in SEC). Hall’s ability to contain Spellman and make Brunson uncomfortable in his hedging of pick-and-roll situations will be vital for the Crimson Tide. On top of that, Hall needs to continue scoring around the rim. He is second in the entire NCAA in two point field goal percentage at 72.8%. They’re going to need that same efficiency around the rim, especially if Villanova decides to double and help heavy on Sexton.
Collin Gillespie and Dazon Ingram
Villanova freshman guard Collin Gillespie enters the Round of 32 having seen a sporadic amount of minutes since his return from a hand injury. The freshman has played as many as 30 minutes, but as few as 5. However, with that said, Gillespie has proved himself to be a strong back-up to star point guard Jalen Brunson. It will specifically be important for him to play well against Alabama because of Sexton’s skillset. Villanova cannot have a drop off in its second unit and if Gillespie can hold his own, that will be a huge part of the Wildcats’ victory. The Wildcats will need to maintain their defensive focus throughout the entire game against a lethal and athletic Alabama squad that can heat up at any moment.
Dazon Ingram is the “Mr. Do-It-All” type for Alabama. The 6-foot-5, 207 pound guard is fourth on the team in points per game, second in rebounds, and second in assists. His versatility and playmaking ability provides a nice complement to Sexton. He played a major role in their SEC tournament run, totaling 13 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists against Texas A&M and 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists against Auburn. Sexton will need help against the Wildcats’ stifling defense and that has to start with Ingram’s ability to create. Additionally, Ingram matches up well with Villanova star Mikal Bridges. He’ll need to match Bridge’s versatility with some of his own on both sides of the floor.
The contest between Alabama and Villanova is a great second round battle between two formidable and hot teams. There are various key matchups to look at in this game, including ones between their star guards, Brunson and Sexton, and their talented bigs, Spellman and Hall. Ultimately, Collin Sexton will probably be the best and most dynamic player on the floor, but Villanova certainly has the deeper and more talented overall team. That is why they will find a way to slow down Sexton and force the other players on Alabama to beat them. Alabama will have trouble keeping up and the Wildcats will pull away late to win this game and move on to the next round.
Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson fights through a trap against St. John's.
Khaaliq Van-Otoo, Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Radford (23-12 overall, 12-6 conference)
Junior forward Ed Polite Jr. (13.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.9 SPG)
Redshirt freshman guard Carlik Jones (11.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, .418 FG%, .310 3P%)
Sophomore guard Donald Hicks (7.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, .367 FG%, .403 3P%)
Sophomore guard Travis Fields Jr. (6.3 PPG, 2.2 APG, 1 SPG, .395 FG%, .361 3P%)
Summary of Season:
Radford started the season playing extremely mediocre basketball, alternating wins and loses on their way to a 5-5 record over their first 10 games. After losing their next game to drop to 5-6, they would go on a six-game win streak, including a 20-point defeat over the #1 team in their conference, UNC Asheville. They would trade wins and loses over the next couple of weeks before winning their last eight games of the season. This run would include three Big South tournament wins in route to a conference championship, where guard Carlik Jones hit a buzzer beater, and a 10-point win over LIU Brooklyn to get them into the round of 64. This is a strong defensive team that can win close, low scoring games and is 14-3 when putting up over 70 points.
Villanova (30-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .531 FG%, .413 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (18 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.6 SPG, .521 FG%, .433 3P%, .851 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, .470 FG%, .382 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.9 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.8 APG, .455 FG%, .394 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .480 FG%, .442 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game winning streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record in the 2017-18 regular season. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. In their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single-digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
The Wildcats are led by juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, who were both on the 2016 National Championship team. Brunson and Bridges will need to set the tone for ‘Nova early on by not coming out slow against #16 Radford. Nova’s strength this season has been their offense, as the Wildcats are first in the nation in points per game at 87.1. They will need to use that to their advantage to get ahead early on. Additionally, ‘Nova is second in the country in three-point field goals with 388 made threes. That will also be another crucial dimension of their offense. With six players averaging double-digits in scoring, the Wildcats will need to share the basketball, giving them a balanced scoring attack Radford won’t be able to match.
What Radford will need to do to win:
Radford will need to attack the glass and win the rebounding battle. Radford is not a great rebounding team and they do not have a favorable matchup in this game going up against the size of Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall for Villanova. Controlling the glass will also allow Radford to slow the game down, which they need to do. This game must be low scoring for Radford to have a chance. Additionally, if Radford wants to advance onto the next round, they must get to the line frequently. They made 16 and 21 free throws in the last two games of their conference tournament and they’ll need to do the same in this one. Radford’s shot at winning will come with controlling the glass, slowing down the pace, getting to the free throw line, and holding Villanova under 65 points.
Carlik Jones vs. Villanova backcourt
If Radford has any chance at staying in the game, they’re going to need Carlik Jones to get hot. The Big South Freshman of the Year can score consistently and he’s only getting better. He has notched double-digits points in each of his last 10 games, a stretch in which the Highlanders went 8-2. He’s not only a scorer, but a playmaker, as he posted 4 or more assists in five of the last six games. Radford will need his quick playmaking and finishing ability to wear out the ‘Nova defense.
On the other hand, if ‘Nova is able to shut down Jones, they will be well on their way to an easy victory. Especially as of late, Jones has been the main spark for the Highlanders and without him, they’re missing their top scoring guard.
Travis Fields and Donte DiVincenzo
Guard Travis Fields is a sneaky x-factor for Radford. The 5-foot-9 sophomore guard from Portsmouth, Virginia has been hot shooting the ball recently. Over the last five games, he has hit the three at a high rate, notching 11/13 his attempts for 85%. Fields, a transfer from Old Dominion, could provide a spark off the bench for Radford. If he can continue to shoot well and extend his double-digit scoring outings to four games in a row (the longest of his career), the Highlanders could catch the Wildcats off guard.
Guard Donte DiVincenzo checks in as an x-factor because of his ability to score. The Radford Highlanders allow just 64.3 points per game, 14th in the nation (a mark of 64.2 in conference play ranks them first in the Big South as well). In order for the Highlanders to win, they’re going to need to play their game and that starts on the defensive end. The perfect spark for ‘Nova: the “Michael Jordan of Delaware.” It wouldn’t be hard to see the Wildcats come out slow against the 16th seeded Highlanders (just check out last year’s game against Mt. St. Mary’s, where the Wildcats only had a one-point lead at half) and it will be DiVincenzo’s job to pick up the team’s production off the bench. Likewise, it would be good for DiVincenzo to find some rhythm after failing to score in double-digits during four of the past five games.
The Highlanders may keep the game close at the beginning, as they don’t match up terribly with the Wildcats and have kept a few games close with Power 5 schools this year (10-point loss at Ohio State and 12-point loss at Vanderbilt). While Radford could lock up defensively, Villanova will crack the code and blow the game open towards the end of the first half. Polite and Jones will score their points for the Highlanders, but they just won’t have enough experience or firepower to slow down the multifaceted offensive attack of Villanova.
Villanova redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman attempts a shot against Xavier senior forward Kerem Kanter.
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
During Villanova’s championship run in the 2015-16 season, senior Ryan Arcidiacono, along with juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were all viewed as the Wildcats’ premier players. However, it was senior big man Daniel Ochefu who gave ‘Nova the edge over their opponents throughout the season and postseason play.
At 6-foot-11, 245 pounds Ochefu did it all for the Wildcats. In the paint, he tormented opposing players with his fluid post moves and rim shaking dunks. On defense he swatted opponents shots and locked up his defensive assignment while grabbing defensive rebound after defensive rebound. Ochefu’s ability to pass from the post should not be overlooked as he routinely found open teammates for high-percentage shots as well.
Ochefu has moved on from ‘Nova’s basketball program and currently plays for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA G-League but he laid the blueprint for future big men under head coach Jay Wright.
Following in Ochefu’s footsteps is redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman.
Like Ochefu, Spellman is a force to be reckoned with on offense and defense but what the former highly touted prospect has that Ochefu didn’t is the ability to score from all three levels. At 6-foot-9, 245 pounds Spellman can post up his counterpart and score with a variety of post moves but that is just part of his offensive arsenal. Spellman can also consistently knock down a mid-range jumper and when given the time to set his feet behind the three-point line, he is as lethal as they come among college forwards.
Despite being on a ‘Nova team that has six players averaging double-figures in scoring, Spellman has found a way to consistently contribute. He has scored in double-digits in all but 10 games and also has 9 double-doubles this season. Since Spellman can score from all three levels, defenders are forced to follow him out to the perimeter which opens up lanes for his teammates. Spellman has an offensive rating of 122.4 and that is not by chance. His presence on offense is felt due to his ability to play inside and out and consistently hit shots.
Not only has his impact been felt on offense but it has also been felt on defense. Spellman is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, second in the Big East and has been ‘Nova’s anchor protecting the basket this season. With Spellman defending the rim, ‘Nova has been able to focus on their perimeter defense and force teams into tough contested shots, as Spellman has posted a block percentage of 5.5%.
His defensive production has been a lone bright spot for ‘Nova’s team defense as the Wildcats have struggled this season allowing 71.2 points per game, almost 9 points higher than last year. Even more, ‘Nova is giving up 77.1 points per game against Big East teams this season. While ‘Nova has given up more points this campaign, the Wildcats’ offense has stepped up and that is partly due to Spellman’s talent.
In past seasons ‘Nova relied on Ochefu and forward Darryl Reynolds to serve as lone bigs who primarily played near the basket but Spellman offers them something different.
In a Big 5 win against Temple earlier this season, Spellman showcased his ability to stretch the floor scoring a career-high 27 points on (11-14 FGM-A, 4-7 3PM-A). Spellman and junior guard Jalen Brunson used a pick and pop play repeatedly against the Owls to attack their defense. While Spellman’s defender was worried about switching onto Brunson after each pick, Spellman was left alone behind the arc and given time to spot up. The Ohio native made Temple pay for leaving him open throughout the game.
Spellman has made a lot of teams pay this season using the pick and pop. The offensive play is something that ‘Nova has used in previous seasons with their bigs but it’s been a while since they have had someone of Spellman’s skillset run it. In fact, the Wildcats have not had a big man with Spellman’s offensive talent since forwards Curtis Sumpter and Dante Cunningham played under coach Wright. That option of having an inside presence to complement their plethora of talented guards makes this ‘Nova team more versatile than any other in recent memory.
However, what separates Spellman from Sumpter, Cunningham, and the ‘Nova big men that have come before him is how quickly he has put it all together. If Spellman finishes this season averaging double-figures in scoring, he would be the first ‘Nova freshman big under under coach Wright to ever do it. Moreover, Spellman would join Randy Foye, Scottie Reynolds, and Arcidiacono as the only freshman in the Jay Wright era to ever accomplish that feat.
Before that can happen, Spellman and Villanova still have two regular season games remaining ahead of the Big East tournament and March Madness. Three of Villanova’s four losses have come in the last six games, so ‘Nova should use these next two games to make adjustments in preparation of postseason play.
While the Wildcats have only lost by 6 or less points in those three losses, ‘Nova must do a better job of limiting their team fouls. In all of their losses this season, the Wildcats have had more personal fouls than their opponent. As a result, opponents have had more opportunities from the foul line and at times that has been the difference in games. In the three most recent losses, they averaged 24.6 fouls, a significant increase from their season average of 15.9 fouls per game. Spellman will also have to be mindful of his fouls, as he averaged 2.7 fouls over the three games after only averaging 2.1 fouls during the entire season.
With the season winding down and tournament play looming, teams will start to use more small ball lineups, which Spellman will have to adjust to. Despite his listed height and weight, Spellman is a versatile forward who can faceup and finish around the rim. Spellman also has the ability to stick with the opposing team’s ‘4’ as well as the ‘5’. Spellman’s versatility in the frontcourt on both ends will be crucial during March Madness.
Looking beyond this season, Spellman should be a major factor for Wright and the Wildcats moving forward. Spellman will only get better over his collegiate career and will improve his overall game as time goes on. The Villanova basketball program will expect Spellman to be one of their core players in the years to come, providing the team with a versatile offensive and defensive option that not many Villanova teams have had.
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson attempts a shot against La Salle guard Pookie Powell at the Palestra.
Over the years, the Villanova Wildcats have been known for their collective team play whether that was a specific Wildcat stepping up on any given night or playing solid team defense against their opponent. Unlike in years past when Villanova’s defense was one of their main strengths, this season their offense has been their calling card as the Wildcats are averaging 87.8 points per game (fifth in country). However, when their offensive production has been matched this year, the Wildcats have been vulnerable and the Butler Bulldogs took advantage of that in late December.
Villanova trailed by 8 at the half against Butler on the road due to their inability to stop the Bulldogs from draining threes. Despite scoring more than their season average and guarding the Bulldogs tighter from behind the arc in the second half, the Wildcats were unable to complete the comeback and suffered their first loss of the season.
The Wildcats gave up 101 points against Butler, which they had not done since the 2013-14 season when Creighton matched that total and beat the Wildcats 101-80 behind a 39-point performance by Doug McDermott.
“This is the best offense we've played against so far and it showed," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright following the game against Butler. "We've really been outscoring teams to this point and we weren't going to outscore this team tonight."
While ‘Nova’s defense was one of the main reasons they lost to Butler, it was the first time all season that an opponent had scored that many points against the Wildcats. Butler shot 68.2% from three against Villanova compared to their current season average of 35%. Since then the Bulldogs haven't come close to matching that three-point effort so they may have just had the hot hand that night. Regardless, for the Wildcats to make a deep run this postseason they must improve on the defensive end.
“We have been talking that we have to get better defensively,” said Wright after Villanova’s victory over Marquette a week after the Butler loss. “You don’t just take four days of practice and say we gotta fix it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That improvement starts with the Wildcats defending the three-point line better. Every Wildcat that plays regular minutes for ‘Nova has the capability of creating havoc on defense by playing tight defense against their matchup and disrupting their rhythm from three. In four of their six games that have been decided by ten or less points, they’ve allowed their opponent to take 20-plus threes and shoot at least 36% from three.
Next, Villanova must protect the paint. While redshirt freshman Omari Spellman is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, the Wildcats are in need of another rim protector. Freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree could be the answer as the Philadelphia native has the size and athletic ability to alter opponents’ shots. If Cosby-Roundtree can provide ‘Nova with a strong defensive presence, along with what Spellman has already shown he can do then the duo could make a really scary frontcourt.
This change will help ‘Nova continue to win games but when the Wildcats come across a team that matches their offense production, then they have to fall back on their #1 strength: scoring.
Villanova is averaging more than 80 points per game for the first time since the 2009-10 season when they put up 81.8 points a night. In the Jay Wright era, only two of his teams have averaged 80 or more points. Not only is Villanova scoring more than they have in previous seasons but they are doing it at an efficient rate. The Wildcats are sixth in the nation for FG% (50.2%) and seventh for 3P% (41.3%).
These top 10 rankings are a result of Villanova’s balanced offense attack, as six Wildcats average double-figures in scoring. That is a rare feat on any level of basketball and Villanova has accomplished that despite dealing with injuries to key players.
Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have led the Wildcats in scoring, but it is their willingness to get teammates involved and let them shine that allows the team to remain balanced on offense.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” said Brunson after ‘Nova took down #10 Xavier on January 10th. “At the same time, I’m trying to get guys open looks and try to create for others. There’s a balance to that and I think honestly I can get better at that.”
With Brunson and Bridges, along with juniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth (who was recently sidelined with a hand injury), sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, and Spellman, the Wildcats have six players who can all score and have a breakout night when they have it going. Villanova has not had this many players who all score in double-digits on a nightly basis in a long time, if ever.
While the increase in scoring has led to a number of lopsided victories for the Wildcats this season, opponents have benefitted from ‘Nova’s sped up offense. ‘Nova is allowing opponents to score 69.1 points per game which is the most allowed since the 2011-12 season when they went 13-19. This most likely is a result from Villanova scoring at a faster pace and should not be viewed as a issue for them. If the points against ‘Nova continue to rise while their points per game stay the same then there may be a cause for concern but until then Wildcat fans shouldn't worry.
Two teams that could pose a threat to the Wildcats are the Bulldogs and the #8 Xavier Musketeers.
The Bulldogs showed earlier this season that they can compete with the Wildcats by handing them their only lost. Averaging 79.3 points per game, Butler has outscored opponents by about 8 points over the season. Senior forward Kelan Martin has led this charge scoring 19.6 ppg, along with teammates sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (15.9 ppg) and junior guard Paul Jorgensen (11.5 ppg). This trio could cause problems for the Wildcats if they’re not careful.
Like Butler, Xavier has a potent offense (84.7 ppg) and three players who average double-figures. Senior guards Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura average 18.9 ppg and 13 ppg respectively for the Musketeers while senior forward Kerem Kanter averages 10 ppg. Villanova shouldn’t overlook the Musketeers since they have only lost three games this season.
Though Butler has beaten ‘Nova in their past three contests, the Bulldogs will enter their next matchup against them as the underdog as will the Musketeers but with Butler and Xavier both being high scoring teams, ‘Nova should not relax against them.
Villanova guard Phil Booth.
(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
A large part of Villanova’s success in recent years has been their x-factors. Whether it was Donte DiVincenzo in last year’s run or Darryl Reynolds and his heroic effort in Daniel Ochefu’s absence two years ago, Villanova head coach Jay Wright has thrived off having players step up when it wasn’t expected of them. This year that will be more important than ever, as Wright and company will look to find those new x-factors with the thick of tough conference play right ahead. In this article, we will take a look at two players who may not be on everyone’s radar, but will need to play a major role down the stretch for Villanova to bring home an NCAA Championship banner once again.
Phil Booth returns after sitting out the majority of last season due to injury. The hero from Villanova’s championship victory over North Carolina has certainly picked up where he left off. In 16 games, Booth has averaged 12.4 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 52% from the field and 44% from three. The guard has proved to be an integral part of the team’s success, scoring in double digits in 11 of the team’s 15 wins and in the one game Villanova lost, Booth scored a mere 4 points, his second lowest total on the year. For Villanova to win, they’re going to need Booth night in and night out.
At the same time, Booth has lacked the credit he deserves. Many look to Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Omari Spellman as the main sources of success for Villanova. But the bottom line is that Booth plays just as important of a role. Shifting more to off the ball, Booth has accepted the role perfectly, providing another ball handler in the backcourt to help out Brunson when necessary. He has showed he can hit the three consistently as well. During his freshman year, he did just that, shooting 48%. But he struggled during his sophomore campaign, knocking down only 31%. This year, he has gotten back to those freshman year numbers with the second highest clip on the team.
Jay Wright has made it clear just how important Booth is to the team off the court as well. He called the redshirt-junior “the most revered guy on the team, the most respected” in an interview with the Daily News’ John Smallwood. Coming off a season ending injury, Booth has certainly captured the heart of the team, especially considering the fact that he wasn’t 100% for much of non-conference play.
In early December, following their win at Saint Joseph’s, Wright added that, “You don’t take the year off and come back that easily, but he will get there.” Throughout the long process of working back to 100%, Booth has set an impression on his teammates, showing that he is going to keep fighting through the setbacks. Likewise, he has been one of the team’s most productive players all season, despite the fact that he hasn’t been totally healthy. He may finally be getting to that point of 100% health, as he has scored 15-plus points in three of the last five games, including a season-high 21 points in their last game against Xavier.
Even though Booth may not be Villanova’s biggest or most athletic player, his ability to affect the game both on and off the court cannot be overlooked. He also brings aggression, leadership, and a three-point threat to a team that thrives off those attributes. If Booth can keep up his strong play and continue to be healthy, he provides the perfect complement to the Villanova stars.
With injuries starting to affect the Villanova depth, Jay Wright needs more help from unlikely sources off the bench. After Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels both went down with a hand fracture a few weeks ago, the Wildcats were left with just DiVincenzo and Dhamir “DaDa” Cosby-Roundtree as the only regular bench pieces left from the beginning of the season. While DiVincenzo’s role won’t necessarily change, Cosby-Roundtree’s will have to, as Wright seems unwilling to try out additional options off the bench.
In their only loss against Butler, Wright was uncharacteristically pushed to play four of his five starters (in addition to DiVincenzo) for more than 30 minutes. With the exception of DiVincenzo, who regularly plays a large amount of minutes, the rest of the bench received a total of 8 minutes (6 for Cosby-Roundtree and 2 for Tim Delaney). That left Mikal Bridges as the team leader in minutes per game, averaging 31.7, with Brunson not far behind at 30.6.
They are the only two to average more than 30 minutes per game. Two years ago, when the Wildcats captured their second National Championship, Ryan Arcidiacono led the team in minutes per game with 32.1. Wright doesn’t want his starters to play the whole game and will aim to keep all of his starters’ minutes in the low 30’s or high 20’s as the season progresses. With that said, he will need to have productive players off the bench to spill the starters in conference play when games are closer together. That’s where we get to Cosby-Roundtree.
Cosby-Roundtree has largely been touted as a player with a high defensive ceiling. Listed at 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, the big man’s presence seems much more imposing on the court than his measurements may suggest. He owns the second highest total rebounding percentage of players receiving regular minutes. Cosby-Roundtree brings aspects to the floor that no other Villanova player brings. He represents the new shift of big men in basketball: he’s an athletic, instinctive defensive minded center who can run the floor and finish at a high level. While Spellman is bigger than Cosby-Roundtree, he is used more as a scoring threat for the Wildcats. Their skill sets complement each other and could provide the Wildcats with a scary frontcourt presence (including, possibly, Eric Paschall at the ‘3’) that they haven’t had in recent years.
If Villanova can receive help from Cosby-Roundtree, it could go a long way in maintaining the starters’ minutes and providing an interior defensive presence that would allow the Wildcats to defend the perimeter even harder. The Neumann-Goretti graduate still has work to do, but with the injuries to their bench, Jay Wright is going to need more out of Cosby-Roundtree. His potential as an x-factor will go a long way in another NCAA championship run.
Saint Joseph's guard Shavar Newkirk dribbles against Toledo at Hagan Arena.
(Saint Joseph's athletics)
There’s some kind of mystical fascination when it comes to the number three. The number three is featured in adages like ‘third time’s the charm’ and in fairy tales where characters have three wishes. The number three has even found itself into commercial America in the form of the iconic trios: the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges and DC comics’ three greatest super heroes, Superman, Batman and Superwoman.
Last Saturday’s battle between two epochal Philadelphia college basketball teams--the Saint Joseph’s Hawks and the Villanova Wildcats--was all about essential pieces of the game that had to do with the number 3: ‘Nova’s press and the 3-pointer.
For much of the game, Villanova ran a 1-2-2 press late in the first half that completely dismantled St. Joe’s offense. The top three guys of the press were responsible for aggressively trapping, which ultimately tired out the St. Joe’s starters, especially Hawks’ star guard Shavar Newkirk.
Newkirk shot just 37% from the field and just 33% from 3-point range. Of the six 3’s he took in the first half, three bounced off the front of the rim. A large reason why he struggled from deep was due to the pressure put on Newkirk, offensively and defensively, causing him to lose energy.
‘Nova’s press forced Newkirk to bring the ball up the court in an average of 6.35 seconds when the press was on. This would cause the guard to constantly scramble just to advance the ball up the floor. Newkirk is also just 6-foot and needs to use his legs twice as much as his taller counterparts to be able to shoot over a defender.
Although the Hawks went zone for much of the beginning portion of the game, covering ‘Nova’s star guard Jalen Brunson up top (who would go on to drop 11 points and four assists in the half) was just as draining for St. Joe’s star.
After Hawks’ forward James Demery sunk an and-1 after being fouled by fellow forward Eric Paschall, the Wildcats went on a rampage. In under two-and-a-half minutes, ‘Nova would drop four 3-pointers in a row, effectively silencing the once roaring student section. At the end of the half, Nova was up 41-27 and showed no sign of slowing down.
St. Joe’s, on the other hand, had just one player who scored in double digits in the first half. Instead, they had three guys who played double digit minutes, but scored 0 points.
In the second half, the Hawks tried to remedy Brunson’s play by covering him with different defenders, including Chris Clover and James Demery. But this didn’t work so well and Hawks’ head coach Phil Martelli alternated the defense so that as soon as Brunson drove into the lane, the bigs would converge like hungry sharks to try and stop Brunson. However, Villanova forward Mikal Bridges knew this wouldn’t work.
“Jalen can really score the ball so when he’s looking to score, everybody’s looking at him,” Bridges explained. “And [Brunson] is a really good point guard so he finds us. As soon as he feels that pressure, with the defense stepping up or if [the defense] is ball watching him, he just finds us for wide open 3’s.”
Brunson would contribute with assists and shots as he led the Wildcats to a school record of ten 3’s in one half. However, Brunson wasn’t the only part of ‘Nova’s sudden surge of scoring.
In the second half, Bridges, Collin Gillespie, and Phil Booth would all score three 3-point baskets and combine for four assists and five rebounds in the half.
St. Joes’ performance would slowly deteriorate as the game went on. Newkirk scored just two more points in 12 minutes of second half play. Demery also added just 4 points and 1 rebound, after scoring 10 points and grabbing 4 rebounds in the first half. However, two players for Saint Joe’s would improve in the second half.
Philadelphia native Chris Clover, scored just four points, and two rebounds in the first half but found his second wind and competed at a much higher level. Clover doubled his first half points (finishing with 12 on the night), collected two more boards, and dished out an assist to fellow Pennsylvania native, Taylor Funk.
Finally, it was freshman forward Taylor Funk, who wears number 33, who hit three 3’s to end the night. He tallied an admiral 13 points, 2 assists, and 3 boards.
Despite the fact that Villanova Wildcats’ head coach Jay Wright won the game by over 40 points, the decorated head coach sung nothing but praises of his opponent.
“When [the Hawks] get their guys back” Wright said, touching on the injuries to sophomore Charlie Brown and junior Lamarr Kimble, “and they have these young guys for the next couple years, they’re gonna be good.”
While Villanova will travel to Creighton on Tuesday night, St. Joe’s can take this loss and figure out how to gain the upper hand in their next game against Temple, who is also a staple of the Philadelphia college basketball stratosphere. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to steal a little from Villanova and utilize the number 3 in a win against Temple.
Villanova guard/forward Mikal Bridges dribbles the ball up the court against Mount St. Mary's in a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup.
Following Villanova’s 2016 National Championship banner and victory parade, Josh Hart had a decision to make. Hart, who decided to go through with the NBA draft evaluation process, could either forgo his senior year with the Wildcats and enter the 2016 NBA draft or return to Villanova for his final collegiate season.
Less than a month before the NBA draft was set to take place in Brooklyn, New, York, Hart sent out a tweet that announced his decision loud and clear, as the Sidwell Friends School alumnus exclaimed to the world “ONE MORE YEAR \\V//” in all caps. With seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu turning pro after the 2015-16 campaign, Hart would be counted on to step up as Villanova’s team leader and primary scoring threat during his senior year.
The Maryland native not only took his game to a new level by leading the Wildcats in scoring (18.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg), but he also had a career-high 27.8 usage percentage. Hart would go on to win numerous awards due to his stellar play but ultimately came up short on his quest to make another deep run during the NCAA tournament. Hart was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers this past June, which left Villanova without their leading scorer and most versatile player from the past two seasons.
Prior to the 2017-18 campaign, people wondered who would step up and fill the void left by Hart? Would the Wildcats be able to replace Hart’s production on both ends of the floor?
One player cannot replace Hart’s production, but head coach Jay Wright will hope to find some pieces to help replicate Hart’s overall on-court presence across his career. So far, it has been junior Jalen Brunson and redshirt junior Mikal Bridges who have fared well this season, leading Villanova to a 6-0 overall record and Battle 4 Atlantis Championship.
Brunson was named a preseason All-American and has proved through ‘Nova’s first six contests that he deserved that honor by averaging 18.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals, and shooting a remarkable 64% from the field. Brunson looks to be Wright’s next great scoring guard, coupled with an unselfish nature that has been homogeneous across ‘Nova’s best players in years past. As reflected in his shooting percentages, Brunson scores at a high clip while avoiding ill-advised shots. This trait has been contagious for the rest of the team, giving them the 51st highest field goal percentage in the NCAA at 49.5%. Though Brunson was not relied upon to carry the Wildcats in his first two seasons, he did have the experience of playing alongside Arcidiacono and Hart which has also helped him learn how to lead the team.
With Brunson primarily running the ‘1’ for Nova, Bridges has been slotted in at the ‘3’ and has even played the ‘4’ at times this season. Like Hart, Bridges is a versatile guard/forward who can guard the opposing team's best scoring option no matter what position they may play. At 6-foot-6, combined with a 7-foot wingspan, Bridges is fit to stick the other team’s big men, while his quickness also allows him to cover guards as well. Bridges was known mainly as a defensive stopper in his few two years, but proved last year that he has the ability to beat his man off the dribble and consistently knock down a three-pointer. That production has carried over into this season and blossomed with Bridges scoring 17 or more points in all but one game. Similar to past years, he has also proven himself to be strong on the defensive end, averaging 1.5 blocks and 2.8 steals (12th in the country) per game. Bridges is proving, just like Hart, that he can affect the game in so many different facets.
Although ‘Nova will need Brunson and Bridges for another championship run, redshirt freshman Omari Spellman may be the deciding factor. Spellman missed the entire 2016-17 season due to academic ineligibility and had to wait patiently to make his Wildcat debut. Having said that, the 6-foot-9.5 and 245 pound big man is back and started his freshman year off strong recording a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) in ‘Nova’s season-opener against Columbia.
Despite back-to-back solid performances versus Nicholls State and Lafayette, where he tallied a season-high 15 points and 9 boards, Spellman struggled during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Spellman had trouble scoring from the field, dropping only two baskets in three consecutive games and saw his minutes decrease as a result. Spellman has the rare combination of size and shooting touch from all-around the court, as he can score from the post using a number of moves and can step out and drill a three-pointer when necessary. Spellman has the makeup of a potential star, which was evident during his first three contests this season, but it is concerning to see him struggle when ‘Nova has faced their tougher competition such as Tennessee and Northern Iowa.
Villanova’s upcoming non-conference games should allow Spellman to regain his shooting form and playing time. The Wildcats next five games are against the four other Big 5 schools with #15 Gonzaga slotted in-between on December 5th. For Villanova to repeat as Big East tournament champions and return to the NCAA tournament, they will need Spellman, along with Brunson and Bridges, to be main contributors down the stretch and these looming non-conference games should be a good test for the trio to see where they are.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright
(Yong Kim/Philly.com Staff Photographer)
Redemption and retooling are two words that come to mind when thinking of the quickly approaching Villanova University men’s basketball season. The disheartening postseason exit at the hands of the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament last Spring evoke redemption. The set of seniors are ready, willing, and able to take up the leadership mantle speaks to retooling. It’s not just the roster that’s getting revamped, either. A fresh, new look to the soon-to-be official Finneran Pavilion moves the Wildcats from their cozy spot on Lancaster Avenue to the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia. The anticipation of both a new facility and the season match the lofty aspirations of this program whose fans eagerly await a loaded schedule. Here’s a look from behind enemy lines at the opponents set in Villanova’s non-conference schedule.
November 14 vs Nicholls State | WFC | 6:30 p.m. | FS1
This is the first ever meeting between VU and the small school in Thibodaux, Louisiana, who is still clawing its way through the Southland Conference. With a second year head coach in Richie Riley, an opportunity for exposure and even an upset is invaluable. There is no better way to do so than face a perennial tournament team and consistent conference champ. For those who might remember, Riley’s Colonels team put the nation on watch when they took down Boston College in Beantown in the first game of the year last season. Though young and new to the head coaching scene, there’s a strong foundation Xs and Os wise. “Richie’s basketball IQ is just terrific,” University of Texas head coach Shaka Smart said of the NSU head coach for GeauxColonels.com. “He understands the game and is not afraid to be innovative, but he also knows how important it is to be fundamentally sound.”
November 17 vs Lafayette | PPL Center | Allentown, Pennsylvania | 8 p.m. | FS2
This matchup is particularly interesting for a few reasons. Although it’s in Allentown, Villanova is marked as the home team, despite LC’s Easton location being under half an hour away. Regardless, the Wildcats have been quite comfortable against the Leopards in recent years, most eloquently exhibited by the team’s 40-point drubbing at the Pavilion last season. Mikail Bridges shined in that one, grabbing game-high 8 rebounds to go with 16 points.
November 22 vs Western Kentucky | Atlantis Paradise Island | Paradise Island, Bahamas | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN Networks
In a rematch of the 1971 Final Four, Western Kentucky gets its first shot at Villanova in this century in the Battle 4 Atlantis first round. The Hilltoppers, like NSU, are led by a second year head coach in Rick Stansbury. He’s the 15th HC in program history. Stansbury is in his second stint at the head of a program, as well, previously coaching at Mississippi State University from 1998 - 2012 after eight years as an assistant there. What WKU fans know about their team is that they are young at their core, but supported by veteran leadership. Guard Darius Thompson, a graduate student, might be the most well traveled of them all for the ‘Toppers, having started his career at the University of Tennessee, where he led a Sweet 16 UT team in steals with 36 and was second in assists at 87. He then threw on another orange jersey for the University of Virginia where he was active in 70 games over two seasons where the Cavaliers made the NCAA tournament. The winner of this game faces Purdue or Thompson’s alma mater, Tennessee, in round two on November 23rd. The other guaranteed game will be on the 24th against an opponent TBD.
November 29 | Penn | Jake Nevin Fieldhouse | Villanova, Pa. | 7 p.m. | Fox Sports networks
In the first Philadelphia Big 5 game for either team, the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse sets the stage for what should be a fantastic night of college hoops. The two squared off last year for what was VU head coach Jay Wright’s 18th bout against the Quakers. Ironically enough, last season’s 82-57 win at the Wells Fargo Center for ‘Nova put them on the fast track to 18 straight City 6 Series wins. The Quakers are coming off of a 13-15 season that looks bad on paper, but did produce the program’s first berth in the inaugural Ivy League tournament. Expect another full-throttle effort from the Jalen-Brunson-led Wildcats to put Penn away.
December 2 | St. Joseph’s | Hagan Arena | Philadelphia | 5:30 p.m. | ESPN2
The Holy War opens the month of December for both teams. Hawks’ fans, as always, are looking forward to this clash of Catholic schools, but are particularly amped for the play of the SJU core that has grown with the program. Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, a Neumann-Goretti High School graduate, put up a team-high 15 points in the Hawks’ L last season against ‘Nova. Kimble was looking to be one of the go-to guys for the Hawks this year, but re-injured his left foot in their season opener. St. Joe’s may have to play without Kimble, but they have seniors Shavar Newkirk and James Demery back and playing well throughout the early part of the season.
December 5 | Gonzaga | Madison Square Garden | New York, New York | 7 p.m. | ESPN
The last two teams to face North Carolina in the past two years’ NCAA Championship games take to New York City’s famed arena early in December. Gonzaga, up until this point, will not have traveled farther than Portland, Oregon for a game, so an hour and a half train ride (and a very notable alumni base in the NYC area) makes this a virtual home game for Villanova. With the conditions favorable to the Wildcats, they need to take advantage here. The ‘Zags will bring an interesting makeup to the court come the 5th, as they look to bolster a roster without NBA players Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, and Zach Collins. That’s where Joel Ayayi steps in. Gonzaga earned the commitment of the 6-foot-5, 160-pound French guard this offseason. Ayayi shined for France’s FIBA under-16 European championship squad, averaged about 11 points, 7 rebounds and 2 assists per game as they finished sixth out of the 16 teams. Ayayi isn’t the only member of the roster with international flare; Killian Tillie (France), Jacob Larson (Denmark), and Rui Hachimura (Japan) represent other home nations while donning the red and navy blue ‘Zaga threads.
December 10 | La Salle | WFC | 1 p.m. | FS1
The Explorers played host in last year’s game at the Palestra and made an absolute spectacle of the evening, pushing the Wildcats to a highly competitive 1st half. Pookie Powell’s three 3-pointers and 10 field goals was the dominant stat line for La Salle last year and complementary piece B.J. Johnson returns to the roster after withdrawing his name from NBA Draft considerations. The two are key components to look out for this season for the boys of Northwest Philly.
December 13 | Temple | Liacouras Center | Philadelphia | 7 p.m. | ESPN2
If fans recall, Villanova had a really tough time shooting the ball against Temple last year. A 36% and 35% shooting marks with field goals and 3’s, respectively, gave TU every chance to pull away with the game. Each year Temple has that potential. Though the Owls head coach is often criticized for recruiting, Fran Dunphy seems to always pull together rosters of competitive players. The names that come to mind are senior forward Obi Enechionyia and senior guard Josh Brown. There won’t be a game you don’t see the two on the court directing traffic and being active on both ends of the floor. They would be “glue guys” to any program, who complement each other’s games on both sides of the floor, but especially for a Temple team that is itching to get back to the NCAA Tournament and make some noise.
December 22 | Hofstra | Nassau Coliseum | Uniondale, New York | 8:30 p.m. | FS1
Jay Wright loves to go back and face the team he once coached. To close out the non-conference portion of the season, the Wildcats will head to the legendary Nassau Coliseum for a near-Christmas clash with the Pride. Hofstra was a bottom-half team most of the season in the Colonial Athletic Conference last year, but the squad did give Delaware a run for its money in the CAA Tournament. If they want to stay in the game against a 30-win team like Villanova, giving up almost 80 points per game will not cut it. Defensive efforts from Rokas Gustys, the Lithuanian big man, will anchor the team. The kid is all about the inside game and has double-double potential every night.
The Empire's season podcast series will cover college basketball in the City 6. We will be releasing a podcast to accompany a written report covering our outlook for the teams' seasons. Please note that the podcasts and the written season previews may differ in writers and opinion.
William Derry and Benjamin Simon
Head coach Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats came into the 2016-17 season with hopes of winning another Big East tournament championship and playing deep into March for the chance to repeat as National Champions. Last season, with team leaders Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu gone, coach Wright needed his three successful seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds to step up and lead the way for the Wildcats.
Hart, Jenkins, and Reynolds did just that, as Villanova started the season on a 14-game winning streak (20-game winning streak dating back to the year before) and going undefeated during non-conference play. But the Wildcats were upset by #18 Butler (68-58) in their first game of 2017 and would go on two separate winning-steaks to close out the year with losses in-between to Big East rivals Marquette and #22 Butler.
Villanova accomplished their first goal of the season, however, with a Big East tournament championship. Coach Wright’s group beat St. John’s (108-67) in the first round and then escaped by a 2-point margin against the reigning Big East tournament champions Seton Hall. They would go on to defeat Creighton in the final.
Up until this point, the Wildcats were right on track with their aspiration of repeating as National Champions and entered the NCAA tournament as the #1 overall seed. ‘Nova blew past 16-seed Mt. St. Mary’s 76-56 in the first round of play but could not close out against 8-seed Wisconsin in the second round.
Though Villanova graduated one of their most successful group of seniors (Hart, Jenkins, and Reynolds), the Wildcats are ready to begin the long journey towards another deep run in March with Phil Booth now healthy, Omari Spellman eligible, three incoming freshman, and a core of Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo.
Who’s Gone? Josh Hart (G, Graduation), Kris Jenkins (F, Graduation), Darryl Reynolds (F, Graduation)
Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds finished their collegiate careers with a 129-17 (.884 winning percentage) overall record. The trio never lost back-to-back games while at Villanova and played an integral role in ‘Nova’s memorable run to an NCAA championship in 2016. Hart, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, was awarded the Julius Erving Award, which honors the nation’s top small forward and was named an All-American. The versatile forward was also named the Big East and Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Year.
Kris Jenkins etched his name into NCAA tournament folklore after hitting a game-winning three-pointer against North Carolina to win Villanova’s first NCAA championship since 1985. Jenkins decided to return for his senior year and was named to the Philadelphia Big 5 First Team. Jenkins went undrafted but signed with the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA-G league.
Darryl Reynolds stepped up for Villanova after former standout forward Daniel Ochefu graduated. Reynolds was Nova’s lone big man in coach Jay Wright’s starting 5 but held his own, notching 5.4 rebounds per game in 31 appearances. Hart, Jenkins, and Reynolds will all be missed due to their talent and commitment to the Villanova basketball program.
Who’s New? Jermaine Samuels (F, Fr.), Dhamir “DaDa” Cosby-Roundtree (F, Fr.), Collin Gillespie (G, Fr.), Peyton Heck (G, Jr.)
Jermaine Samuels is Villanova's top rated recruit in the class of 2017. Samuels led The Rivers School (Massachusetts) to a 20-6 record during his senior year and was ranked by ESPN as the 11th best small forward in his recruiting class. Samuels is an athletic wing who can play multiple positions and should see some action this season for the Wildcats.
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree shared the floor last season with Kentucky freshman Quade Green at Neumann-Goretti. While Green broke down defenders and attacked the basket, Cosby-Roundtree wreaked havoc in the paint for the Saints. Cosby-Roundtree averaged 15.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks during his senior campaign. The Philadelphia native helped lead Neumann Goretti to the Philadelphia Catholic League Final but came up short against fellow incoming freshman Collin Gillespie and Archbishop Wood.
Gillespie entered his senior year at Archbishop Wood as a potential Division 2 prospect but after leading the Vikings to a Philadelphia Catholic League Title as well as a PIAA State Championship, the Warminster native began to receive interest from high-level programs. Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard observed Gillespie in action against Our Savior Lutheran in New York and walked away impressed. That was the start of Nova’s recruitment of the 6-foot-3 guard and he committed in mid-January. Gillespie is a coach's dream due to his rare combination of skill and great work ethic. He has drawn comparisons to former Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono due to his willingness to do whatever it takes for his team to win, like diving on the floor for a loose ball. Gillespie is tough, smart, and has a beautiful jump shot to combine with his deceptive athleticism and underrated ball handling skills.
Peyton Heck joined the Wildcats’ active roster after two seasons as a practice player.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Jr. G: Jalen Brunson (Proj. Stats: 17 PPG, 5 APG, .48 FG%)
Jalen Brunson returns as the Wildcats’ go-to scorer and playmaker. Brunson, a highly touted recruit out of Stevenson High School, will finally get his chance to be the ultimate go-to scorer for the Wildcats. After earning unanimous First Team All-Big East honors last year, the guard has received many preseason accolades, including preseason All-American. Brunson will have a strong interior big man with Omari Spellman to complement his game. That will add an inside-outside aspect that the Wildcats didn’t have last year. Brunson seems poised to have a breakout year, but the team’s success will directly hinge on his ability to score and create for teammates on an every game basis.
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson dribbles against Seton Hall at the Prudential Center.
(Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
RS-Jr. G: Phil Booth (Proj. Stats: 8 PPG, 3 APG, .37 3P%)
Phil Booth returns after sitting out last year due to left knee inflammation. His first two years were encouraging, where he showed his all-around basketball ability. As a freshman, he shot 64.5% from 2-point range and 48.5% from 3 while during his sophomore year he improved his defensive box plus-minus from 0.8 to 2.7. Booth will probably play beside Jalen Brunson where the junior guard will need to provide a 3-point threat for the Wildcats. Coach Jay Wright has shown that he is not afraid to play two point guards at the same time. Both Booth and Brunson are experienced and should share a fair amount of minutes in the backcourt together.
RS-So. G: Donte DiVincenzo (Proj. Stats: 10 PPG, 3 RPG, .48 FG%)
A year after injuring himself in his freshman season, playing a mere 74 minutes, fans weren’t too sure what to expect from the guard. Donte DiVincenzo returned last season and instantly showed why he should be a major contributor for the Wildcats going forward. The redshirt freshman, who had been touted as the “Michael Jordan of Delaware” in high school, exemplified his sheer athleticism and toughness from the get-go. There was never a worry that DiVincenzo was going to fight until the end. He became an integral part of the rotation, averaging 29.3 minutes per game in the final 10 games of the season. While DiVincenzo was used more as a spark plug off the bench last year, he will be asked to step into the lineup and score on a consistent basis this season.
RS-Jr. F: Mikal Bridges (Proj. Stats: 11 PPG, 6 RPG, .38 3P%)
After an improved sophomore campaign, the Pennsylvania native has received a fair amount of buzz about his NBA stock this offseason. While Villanova faithful knew that Bridges was a lockdown defender, he really lived up to the hype, earning Big East Defensive Player of the Year last year. Often characterized only as a defensive stopper, Bridges also showed his ability to score on a consistent basis. The guard/forward shot 69.4% from 2-point shots, while significantly increasing his 3-point percentage from 29.9% to 39.3% in the matter of a year. He also brought his free throw percentage up from 78.7% to 91.1%. Bridges will have to take on a bigger load offensively this season, but as the ‘4’, he will face mismatches on a nightly basis. With two point guards and the athletic Divincenzo and Bridges filling the lanes, the Wildcats will be able to run the fast break. In the past few years, the small ball lineup has worked and been a staple for coach Jay Wright. This year should be no different.
F: Omari Spellman (Proj. Stats: 13 PPG, 8 RPG, .54 FG%)
Omari Spellman was expected to be a major part of the Wildcats’ regular lineup when it was deemed that he would have to sit out for the 2016-17 season. This came after the NCAA deemed that Spellman had not completed the mandated 16 core high school courses in the proper amount of time during his high school years. With that in the past, Spellman is bound for a successful year. Spellman is a big body who can complement Jay Wright’s backcourt game well. The Ohio native can play in the post while also step out and hit the 3, which will work well with Jalen Brunson’s ability to effectively run the pick-and-roll. Spellman was ranked by ESPN as the 18th best player in the recruiting class of 2016 and has cut his weight down from 275 pounds to 245 pounds, which will certainly help him defensively. Expect a more mobile, but equally strong interior player. He is a complete offensive weapon and it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats use him in the frontcourt. He could emerge as the team’s second go-to scorer next to Brunson because of his size and offensive versatility.
Reserves: Eric Paschall (F, RS-Jr.), Jermaine Samuels (F, Fr.), Dylan Painter (F, So.), Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (F, Fr.), Collin Gillespie (G, Fr.), Tim Delaney (F, RS-So.)
Eric Paschall made his debut last year for the Wildcats after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. The 2015 Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year primarily came in off the bench last season although that did not stop Paschall from contributing. He played in all 36 games and averaged 7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and shot 51% from the field. Even though Paschall is 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, he has the skill of a guard who can beat his man off the dribble and shoot from around the perimeter. Paschall will be ‘Nova’s primary reserve and will see plenty of playing time.
With Donte DiVincenzo likely to start this season, Jermaine Samuels will likely be the first guard off the bench this year for the Wildcats. Like DiVincenzo, Samuels is a special athlete who has the versatility to play various positions. Samuels can score the basketball in a number of different ways but may be asked to focus on defense and moving without the ball early on in his Wildcat career.
Dylan Painter did not see very much playing time last season and with coach Wright likely to keep a tight rotation this season, the Hershey native may have to continue to wait his turn. He will compete with Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Tim Delaney for minutes. It would be hard to imagine coach Wright playing all three consistently.
Cosby-Roundtree is an athletic forward that can play above the rim and swat opponents shots. The Philadelphia native could factor into Villanova’s rotation if coach Wright decides to play with a true center, a shot blocker, and a strong defender.
Collin Gillespie has impressed his coaches and teammates throughout the preseason with his toughness and basketball IQ. The 6-foot-3 guard will likely backup guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Gillespie is coming off a spectacular high school senior year and should see a considerable amount of playing time as a reserve guard.
Tim Delaney has only played in 7 games over the past two seasons due to two hip injuries which both required surgery. If healthy, Delaney may be able to scratch out some minutes for the Wildcats in a reserve role.
vs. Gonzaga (Dec. 5th, 2017)
Villanova’s biggest guaranteed game on their non-conference schedule has to be against #18 Gonzaga. The Zags return a year after reaching the NCAA championship where they fell in a tightly contested battle to North Carolina. While they lost their go-to guy Nigel Williams-Goss and big man Przemek Karnowski, head coach Mark Few has a proven record of preparing his teams to be Top 25 contenders. Gonzaga returns redshirt junior Josh Perkins, who played beside Williams-Goss last year, and redshirt senior Jonathan Williams, who was a defensive anchor for the Zags. They’ll provide Villanova with their best non-conference competition of the year and a potential resume builder.
at Butler (Dec. 30th, 2017)
‘Nova lost only four games last season. Two of those losses came against the Butler Bulldogs, each by a margin of eight points. They’ll first face off with the Bulldogs in late December where the Wildcats will look to add to their resume and redeem themselves after the tough losses last season. The Bulldogs return senior forward Kelan Martin along with the efficient and tough defending sophomore Kamar Baldwin. Butler looks like an NCAA Tournament team once again and Villanova will look to take advantage of a Butler team that will be in their first year with new head coach LaVall Jordan.
at Seton Hall (Feb. 28th, 2018)
The Wildcats head to Seton Hall on February 28th to take on the team that knocked them out of the Big East Conference Tournament two years ago. The last few meetings between the teams have been tightly contested contests. With Seton Hall starting the year ranked #23 in the country, expect to see the same this season. Villanova will travel to face the Pirates in their second to last game of the regular season, giving them a chance to take on more challenging competition before the NCAA Tournament.
After winning the National Championship two seasons ago, the expectations have risen for Villanova basketball. However, after losing go-to scorer Josh Hart, steady man Kris Jenkins, and starting forward Darryl Reynolds, it will be hard for the Wildcats to make the same championship run. Their success will ride on Jalen Brunson’s ability to be coach Wright’s go-to guy along with the emergence of the Wildcats’ bench. A lot will hinge on whether the newcomers can produce at the collegiate level. Unfortunately, the freshmen, including Omari Spellman, will have no room to sit on the bench and learn as they will be thrust into big roles from the start of the saeon. With that said, this Wildcats team fits well into coach Jay Wright’s system and if they can develop the camaraderie that the team’s in the past have had, the Wildcats could make some noise come March. ‘Nova also doesn’t play a particularly tough non-conference schedule and that should allow time for the newcomers to get comfortable with collegiate play before conference play. A 3rd seed and at least a Sweet 16 appearance seems realistic for the Wildcats.
“(Phil) Booth is simply the most difficult Wildcat to predict this season. He could lead the team in scoring this year or miss half the games, we just don’t know yet. But given that the team has now dealt with and managed his knee for over a year, I’m guessing there’s a plan in place that will get Booth on the court. If he can play over 20 minutes a game, then he has the potential to be the best player on the team. If his knee won’t allow that, then he’ll still be the most valuable role player Villanova has. The question is, which version of Phil Booth shows up this season?” -SBNation VU Hoops
“He (Omari Spellman) can play like Kris Jenkins or like Daniel Ochefu. We don’t have to change things in the way we do them because Omari is a great team guy. It’s a little different because we never had someone as a freshman that we could feature like this in terms of being a dominant interior scorer. Daniel Ochefu became that later in his career and I felt that during the second half of his senior season, he was the best big man in the country. That’s what Omari has a chance to be offensively next season.” Jay Wright to FanRag’s Jon Rothstein
“I’ve always felt he’s (Jalen Brunson) been mature beyond his years. If you need him to score, he’ll score. Distribute, facilitate? He’ll do that. And it’s refreshing to see someone as talented as Jalen that’s as humble as he is. Some of our stars in college basketball want to stand on the tallest mountain and say, ‘Look at me.’ He’s never been that way.” -Creighton coach Greg McDermott to Sporting News
“The league title will come down to...Whether Villanova will skip a beat in its usual Big East dominance. The Wildcats have won four straight conference titles, going 63-9 in those four regular seasons. What separates them from everyone else is their ability to seamlessly replace departed stars. Wright has the pieces once again, with Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall ready for bigger roles. But any slip-ups in performance, and Xavier, Seton Hall and Providence are ready to pounce. Each of those contenders will start at least three or four seniors; they'll want to go out on top.” -ESPN’s 2018 Big East Preview
“With (Phil) Booth unavailable and freshman big man Omari Spellman ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA last season, the Wildcats’ rotation shrank to just seven players. Villanova was 320th in the nation in bench minutes, which led to the team’s tempo falling to 324th, easily the slowest of coach Jay Wright’s 16-year tenure. ‘We couldn’t press, and we walked the ball up a lot because we were trying to conserve energy,” Wright says. ‘I think we’ll go back to our normal style of play this year. We’ll have the depth to do that.’” -Sports Illustrated’s “Scouting Reports: The Strengths, Weaknesses and X-Factors of College Basketball's Top 10 Teams”
4-star recruit Brandon Slater announced via Twitter last night that he will be attending Villanova University next fall and join its 2018 recruiting class.
The 6-foot-6 forward currently attends Paul VI high school in Fairfax, Virginia and plays for Team Takeover, where he is averaging 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds on the Nike EYBL circuit. Slater is ranked as No. 42 in ESPN’s top 60 for his graduating class and has been rated as a top 50 recruit by Rivals.com and Scout.com.
Maryland, Miami, Virginia and South Carolina, among other schools were also interested in Slater.
The lefty is coach Jay Wright’s first commitment for the class of 2018.
Photo: Twitter of Brandon Slater
-(1) Villanova faces (5) West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament