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
For the first time in over 728 days, the Villanova Wildcats lost an NCAA tournament game.
The Wisconsin Badgers upset Villanova, 65-62, in the second round of the East regional. It was a back and forth contest as both teams traded baskets throughout the afternoon. The Wildcats held a 7-point lead with less than 6 minutes left in regulation but could not pull away, as the Badgers went on a 7-0 run to tie the game at 57. Villanova regained the lead after senior guard Josh Hart converted 1 of 2 from the foul line but were unable to match the Badgers on offense (three made field goals) down the stretch, scoring only one field goal in the final three minutes.
Wisconsin senior forward Nigel Hayes had a team-high 19 points and recorded 8 rebounds, while senior guard Bronson Koenig and sophomore forward Ethan Happ scored 17 and 12 points respectively. Villanova was led in scoring by Hart, who had 19 points and redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 15 points.
The Badgers will return to the Sweet 16 for a fourth consecutive time, while Villanova’s remarkable 2016-17 season has come to an end.
Photo: Dave Weaver-USA Today Sports
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Record: (26-9 overall, 12-6 conference)
Key players: Senior guard Bronson Koenig (14.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .417 FG%, .393 3P%), sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.8 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1.8 SPG, .583 FG%) and senior forward Nigel Hayes (13.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.8 APG, .448 FG%, .309 3P%).
Summary of Season: Wisconsin got off to a hot start to begin the 2016-17 season, as the Badgers won 21 out of their first 24 games. Although Wisconsin lost 5 of their last 7 games heading into the Big Ten conference tournament, head coach Greg Gard and company cruised through the quarterfinals and semifinals with double-digit wins over Indiana and Northwestern.
Having said that, the Badgers faced a red hot Michigan Wolverines team in the Big Ten final and ultimately lost 71-56.
Senior guard Bronson Koenig set a school-record with eight three-pointers yesterday to help (8) Wisconsin defeat (9) Virginia Tech, 84-74, and advance on to the 2nd round of the East regional, where they will matchup against No. 1 overall seed Villanova.
#1 Villanova Wildcats
Record: (32-3 overall, 15-3 conference)
Key players: Player of the Year candidate senior guard Josh Hart (18.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, .509 FG%, .408 3P%), senior forward Kris Jenkins (13.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .388 FG%), and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, .544 FG%, .393 3P%).
Summary of Season: Villanova did not miss a step this season after winning the 2016 National Championship.
Including last year’s postseason run, the Wildcats went on a 20-game winning streak to begin the season. Jay Wright and the reigning NCAA tournament champions did lose three regular season games (two against Butler and one against Marquette) during the 2016-17 campaign, but still clinched their 4th straight regular season Big East title against Creighton in late February.
After beating Creighton again for the Big East tournament title in the conference final, (1) Villanova struggled early on in yesterday’s first round contest against (16) Mount St. Mary’s. The defending champions did regroup after halftime and went on to win by 20 points, with the help of redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo. DiVincenzo came in off the bench to score a team-high 21 points and recorded a career-high 13 rebounds.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
Villanova cannot repeat their lackluster first half performance from yesterday’s game against Mount St. Mary’s if they want to return to the Sweet 16. The Wildcats uncharacteristically only made one three-pointer before intermission in the first round of the tournament. POY candidate Josh Hart converted that lone three but for Villanova to win they must put together a complete shooting performance as a team. Also, senior forward Darryl Reynolds (Nova’s primary big man) will need to lead coach Wright’s undersized frontcourt by forcing Wisconsin’s big men off the low block and protecting the paint for Villanova. For Nova to advance on to the next round, they must box out on the defensive end, as the Badgers are 9th in the nation in offensive rebounding.
What Wisconsin will need to do to win:
Wisconsin has a really good chance at winning this game if they can do a couple things right. For starters, they must get Bronson Koenig going early. The senior has a knack for showing up in big moments, as he did last year against Xavier in the Round of 32. Wisconsin will also have to establish the inside-out game by engaging Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes early on. By getting the big men involved, they’ll put pressure on Villanova’s thin frontcourt and open up shooting opportunities for Koenig (.393 3P%), Zak Showalter (.407 3P%), and D’Mitrik Trice (.427 3P%). Finally, as a team that ranks 31st in the nation in total rebounding, they will need to attack the boards and put pressure on an undersized Villanova team.
Bronson Koenig (Wisconsin) vs. Villanova defense
The most key matchup of the game will be how Villanova can contain senior Bronson Koenig. The point guard has proved time and time again that he is one of the most clutch players in the country when the bright lights are shining. He opened up yesterday’s Round of 64 matchup against Virginia Tech with a 28-point, 8 3-pointer performance. He has recorded nine 20-point games this year and has shown the ability to hit shots really quickly. Koenig is a legit scorer and if he gets hot, it would give Wisconsin a very good chance at coming out on top. Villanova must understand that while Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ are really strong players, the most important player to slow down will be Koenig because of his ability to dictate the tone of the game through hitting shots. Villanova should throw multiple different looks at Koenig. This may include starting with Jalen Brunson on him, but moving to Josh Hart and even Mikal Bridges (if Wisconsin goes with a small lineup).
Zak Showalter (Wisconsin) and Darryl Reynolds (Villanova)
Zak Showalter enters the game as one of the premier defenders in college basketball. It will be his job to attempt to slow down Villanova’s fantastic guard play. Whether it’s sticking Jalen Brunson or Josh Hart, he will have a major assignment that will play a huge role in the outcome of the game. At the same time, a large part of the Wisconsin game plan revolves around going through their big men, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes. Villanova will have their hands full with their thin frontcourt. Darryl Reynolds, who covers the opposing team’s ‘5’, will have to make sure Happ and Hayes don’t have a field day. His defensive performance will be pivotal if they want to pull out the win.
Prediction: Villanova 70-66
This will most likely be a back and forth game, that closely resembles an Elite Eight matchup. Though Wisconsin is currently the only team to advance into the Sweet 16 over the past three years, Villanova will bring that appearance streak to an end. The Wildcats will come out on top due to their resiliency in tightly contested games and ability to manage games down the stretch.
Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images North America
No. 1 overall seed Villanova defeated (16) Mount St. Mary’s, 76-56, in the first round of the East regional. The Wildcats entered halftime with a 1-point lead over the Mountaineers despite struggling to settle into the game early on. Villanova went on a 21-6 run to start the second half, which helped them pull away from the Mountaineers and ultimately secure the win.
Redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo scored a team-high 21 points and recorded a career-high 13 rebounds, while sophomores Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges added 14 and 13 points respectively. The Mountaineers were led in scoring by freshman Miles Wilson, who had a game-high 22 points, and sophomore Elijah Long, who finished with 10 points.
Up next for the Wildcats is (8) Wisconsin/(9) Virginia Tech this Saturday in the second round of the East Regional.
Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Mount St. Mary’s
Record: (20-15 overall, 14-4 conference)
Key players: Sophomore guard Elijah Long (15.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.4 APG, .420 FG%, .395 3P%), junior guard Junior Robinson (14.3 PPG, 2.9 APG, .425 FG%, .399 3P%), and freshman guard Miles Wilson (11.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, .461 FG%, .367 3P%).
Summary of Season: Mount St. Mary’s started the 2016-17 season 1-11 overall after being picked to finish 4th in the Northeast conference (NEC) preseason coaches poll. The Mountaineers rebounded by going 19-4 to finish the season and won the NEC regular season title for the first time in 21 years with a victory over St. Francis (BKN).
With single-digit wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the NEC tournament, the Mountaineers defeated St. Francis (PA) by 10 points for the conference championship and earned an automatic tournament bid as a result.
Despite a late push by New Orleans in yesterday’s first round matchup in Dayton, Ohio, the Mountaineers escaped with a 1-point win and advanced on to the 2nd round of the tournament to face the No. 1 overall seed in Villanova.
Though the Mountaineers compete in a non-power 5 conference, they faced West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota and Michigan during non-conference play earlier this season. That experience against power 5 conference teams should help prepare head coach Jamion Christian and his group for Villanova.
Record: (31-3 overall, 15-3 conference)
Key players: Player of the Year candidate senior guard Josh Hart (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, .508 FG%, .407 3P%), senior forward Kris Jenkins (13.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .372 FG%), and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, .541 FG%, .396 3P%).
Summary of Season: Villanova did not miss a step this season after winning the 2016 National Championship.
Including last year’s postseason run, the Wildcats went on a 20-game winning streak to begin the season. However, Jay Wright and the reigning NCAA tournament champions did lose three regular season games (two against Butler and one against Marquette) during the 2016-17 campaign, but still clinched their 4th straight regular season Big East title against Creighton in late February.
The Wildcats beat Creighton again for the Big East tournament title after a 41-point victory over St. John’s in the quarterfinals and 2-point victory over Seton Hall in the semifinals. Nova earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and have the most wins (31) of a defending champion entering the tournament.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
Villanova will need to continue to shoot a high-percentage from the field. The Wildcats are currently shooting 50% overall, which is sixth best in the nation, and 37% from three. Villanova head coach Jay Wright will rely on seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds to set the tone and provide veteran leadership in this early round matchup against Mount St. Mary’s. Despite entering tournament-play as the No. 1 overall seed, the Wildcats will need to limit the Mountaineers’ chances around the basket. If Nova can force the Mountaineers into long-range attempts instead of drives to the basket then the Wildcats will all but eliminate Mount St. Mary’s offensive scheme.
What Mount St. Mary’s will need to do to win:
Mount St. Mary’s will need major scoring from their backcourt trio in Junior Robinson, Elijah Long, and Miles Wilson. The three combine for 60% of the team’s 68 points per game. In order to defeat the Wildcats, they will need to jump out early and find a way to score consistently throughout the game. That will start with these three guys. The Mountaineers will also have to run the Wildcats off the 3-point line. If they’re able to force Villanova into struggling from beyond the arc, they’ll have a much better chance at history. In the three games that Villanova lost this season, they shot 18 for 74 (24%) from 3. The Wildcats shot 37% from 3-pointers on the year which has extremely helped them open up free driving lanes. They are an extremely efficient team when the 3’s are falling, as they rank second in the nation in 2-point conversion percentage, at 59.7%, as a result of the space the 3 ball creates. Mount St. Mary’s will have to replicate the disturbance that Butler and Marquette caused on Villanova’s three point shots.
Jalen Brunson vs. Junior Robinson
The battle of the little guards. If Mount St. Mary’s has any chance, they’ll need big play from a big time player. Robinson, who is the shortest player in Division 1 college basketball at 5-foot-5, is steaming hot right now, coming off 20 point outings in three of his last four games. He’s lightning quick and a gamer, as proved in his first round matchup against New Orleans (23 points on 9-14 shooting). It will be Brunson’s job to neutralize him early and make sure he doesn’t catch fire, like he has shown he can do so many times this year. Likewise, if Robinson can find a way to contain Brunson and make it tough for him to get the Villanova offense going, that will be the start of good news for Mount St. Mary’s. The problem is few defenders have been able to disrupt Brunson this entire year. Robinson will surely need to do so in order to pull off the improbable win.
Chris Wray (Mount St. Mary’s) and Donte DiVincenzo (Villanova)
One way to defeat Villanova would also be through their thin frontcourt. Not many teams, however, have been able to take advantage of the defending national champions’ lack of size up front. For Mount St. Mary’s to do that, it has to start with 6-foot-8 junior Chris Wray. In arguably the Mountaineers most impressive victory this season, against a 20-13 George Mason team, Wray notched a career-high 21 points and 10 points after shooting 10-13 from the field. Donte DiVincenzo will also play a major role for Villanova off the bench. If the game is close early on, the Delaware native will be relied on to provide a spark off the bench. The starters may not be clicking and it will be DiVincenzo’s job to bring energy and get the team back on track.
Prediction: 80-50 Villanova Wildcats
Although Mount St. Mary’s has the hot hand coming into this contest after defeating New Orleans yesterday in the first round, Villanova’s skill, size and experience will be too much for the Mountaineers to compete with. Nova’s overall team skill will overwhelm the Mountaineers and will force them to play from behind for most of the game. Nova will cruise past the Mountaineers and advance on into the Round of 32 unscathed.
Photo: Eric Hartline-USA Today Sports
Entering March Madness, Villanova has become the most dominant college team in the country. Currently the Wildcats are ranked number one in the country and are the defending national champions. They also have two of the most dynamic guards in the country with Mr. Do-It-All Josh Hart and All-Big East First Teamer Jalen Brunson, who spurned talk about leaving for the NBA and returned to Villanova for his sophomore year. Yet with all of the positives going for Jay Wright and the Wildcats there are still some glaring holes that could potentially prevent Villanova from defending their national title crown.
The biggest figurative and literal issue for ‘Nova stems from academics, that left a huge void in the middle of the Wildcats lineup. While Daniel Ochefu’s graduation was expected, Ochefu was supposed to be replaced by Omari Spellman. Spellman is a 6-foot-9, 265-pound five-star recruit that would be the necessary presence in the interior for Jay Wright and his squad as they are on their quest to win consecutive national titles. Yet due to Spellman transferring to a private school as a 9th grader and being reclassified as an 8th grader, Spellman was considered ineligible for this year.
That lack of size inside could be exploited against basketball blue bloods Duke, Kentucky, or even their potential second round matchup in Wisconsin. For the Blue Devils, the combination of Jayson Tatum and Amile Jefferson could exploit Villanova’s lack of a true center in an NCAA tournament game. Against the likes of Wisconsin, the Wildcats will have to deal with 6-foot-10 Ethan Happ, who put up nearly 14 points per game and 9 rebounds.
The formula can also ring true if Villanova goes against John Calipari and Kentucky in the title game. Freshman Edrice Adebayo and sophomore Isaac Humphries could control the paint and end the title run of Villanova. What makes Kentucky scarier than Duke has been the play of Malik Monk, who put up 47 points against North Carolina earlier in the season.
The second glaring issue for Villanova is depth. Not only does Spellman’s lose still hurt, but so does Phil Booth’s injury. Booth appeared in all 40 games for the Wildcats last season but primarily came off the bench. Booth has been sidelined with tendinitis in his left knee and has not appeared in a game since November 17th. Booth has yet to appear in a game. While there have been no signs of Hart and Brunson wearing down, who knows what another month of basketball could do. The Wildcats have been lucky by the emergence of redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo, who averaged 8.3 points per game and 3.5 rebounds off the bench.
While these are two factors that hurt Villanova on paper, it has not yet hurt their performance so far. They currently have the talent to defeat most teams even with their lack of size and depth. But all it takes is one slip up in March to end your season.
Photo: Yong Kim/Philly.com
As all college basketball fans know, Villanova is the reigning and defending National Champions after an unexpected title run last spring. The national title was hard fought for and well deserved for Jay Wright and company. Not only did the Wildcats prove their legitimacy as a program, but they validated the entire Big East conference with their performance in March Madness. And while Nova is atop Mount Olympus there are several contenders that will challenge their supremacy in the Big East in 2016-2017.
One of the few teams that was able to obtain a victory against Villanova last year was Xavier. While the Musketeers lost forwards Jalen Reynolds and James Farr, coach Chris Mack still has talent returning this season. The guard play will be strong with Trevon Bluiett and Edmund Summers and sparkplug J.P. Macura, who is transitioning from 6th man to starter this season for X. While the backcourt is a proven commodity in Big East play, the frontcourt is unproven entering this season. Sean O’Mara and Rashid Gaston will be getting most of the minutes at forward as Xavier looks to utilize a smaller lineup similar to the style that is implemented at Villanova.
This year’s Blue Jay roster was built in an unconventional style as coach Greg McDermott acquired several key players via transfer. In 2016, the team’s leading scorer and assist man was Maurice Watson Jr., who transferred into Creighton from Boston University. Watson Jr. now has some extra help this year with Kansas State transfer Marcus Forster becoming eligible after sitting out the 2015-16 season. In his two seasons at Kansas State, Forster averaged 14. 1 points. Cole Huff, a transfer from Nevada will get major minutes at forward and provide interior scoring and defense to help out coach McDermott’s crew. The Jays already are building an impressive resume after beating Washington State, NC State, Ole Miss, and #9 ranked Wisconsin.
While Villanova came away with the national title, Seton Hall was able to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden by defeating the Wildcats in the Big East final 69-67. Gone for the Pirates is Isaiah Whitehead, but coach Kevin Willard still has talent returning to campus in South Orange, New Jersey. While Whitehead left for greener pastures, Khadeen Carrington is willing and able to be the premier scoring threat for Seton Hall this season. The paint will be anchored by junior forward Angel Delgado who could average a double double this season. Coach Willard also has a glue guy that can do almost anything on the floor in the form of forward Desi Rodriguez. He can score, rebound, and defend. Rodriguez could do the dirty work that would allow the Pirates to turn bad losses into tough wins.
While the season is still in its infancy, the Big East will be a challenge for the Wildcats. The tough conference play can either strengthen the team and allow ‘Nova to make another deep run into March or the intense competition can wear out Nova and make them vulnerable to an early exit in the postseason.
Photo: Sarah Hoffman/The World-Herald
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship