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”
-#1 Villanova takes on Providence this Tuesday