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.
-(1) Villanova faces (5) West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament