Last year Villanova was the only team among the Philadelphia area’s six Division I college basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament. This season there could be others, but nothing is assured. What is considered a good bet is Villanova again being a tournament team and one that has the ability to make a deep run.
This is a team that won the NCAA title in dramatic fashion in 2016, beating North Carolina, 77-74 in an epic final. This year’s team will rely heavily on the junior class after the graduation of Josh Hart (a first-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Kris Jenkins, who famously shot the game-winner in the championship win.
Coach Jay Wright has things rolling at Villanova. The Wildcats have earned an NCAA Tournament berth in five consecutive years and 12 of the past 13 seasons.
Last year Villanova lost in the second round to a Wisconsin team that was making its 19th straight NCAA appearance.
This year’s leader is junior point guard Jalen Brunson, a first-team all-Big East selection last season. Brunson is also this year’s preseason conference player of the year. People may forget that Brunson was a vital part of the title team, starting 39 of 40 games and averaging 9.6 points and 2.5 assists in 24 minutes per game. Last year he took on a greater role and averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists in 31.1 minutes. Brunson started this season with 14 points and three assists in 36 minutes during a 75-60 win over Columbia. No, Villanova didn’t look like world beaters and certainly not like the No. 6 team in the country, which is where the Wildcats were in the preseason polls.
Yet, these are the early-season non-league games where the players can develop chemistry. It may take a while before this is a smooth team, but history and the talent level suggests it will happen. Junior forward Mikal Bridges, has been listed in many quarters as a potential NBA first round draft choice. In the championship season, he appeared in all 40 games in a reserve role and averaged 6.4 points. That season Bridges played more as the season progressed and averaged 22.3 minutes in Villanova’s six NCAA games. Last season he averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. These don’t sound like stats of a potential first round pick, but Bridges is an adept defender, a value greatly appreciated in the NBA.
Junior guard Phil Booth, who earned a medical redshirt after appearing in just three games last season, is known as a clutch player. That was evident in the NCAA title win over North Carolina when he scored 20 points.
Junior forward Eric Paschall and sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo are experienced veterans from last year and 6-9 freshman Omari Spellman, a five-star recruit, started in the opener and should be a major contributor. Another freshman, guard Collin Gillespie played 18 minutes in the opener and figures to be a key rotation player.
The Wildcats have won the last four Big East regular season championships and has been tournament champion two of the last three years.
While the Wildcats could take a little longer to jell, they still should be the class of the Big East and a dangerous come March.