Josh Hart (above), Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds graduated from Villanova in the spring as the Wildcats' winningest class ever. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
2017-18 Villanova Wildcats Primer
Coach: Jay Wright, 17th season (386-161, .706)
Last Year: 32-4 overall, 15-3 Big East; won Big East Tournament championship (Creighton, 74-60) lost in NCAA Tournament Round of 32 (Wisconsin, 65-62)
The Wildcats’ bid for back-to-back national championships fell short, but besides that it was yet another dominant campaign for a Wright-coached squad. Villanova won at least 29 games and captured the Big East regular-season title for the fourth consecutive season, making the Big Dance for the 12th time in Wright’s 16 years on the Main Line. For the second time in four years, ‘Nova ended up in Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament but was upended in the second round by an underseeded Wisconsin. Despite the graduation of a few more seniors who certainly left their mark on the program over their four years, the Wildcats once again have the talent necessary to be the team to beat in the Big East.
Key Losses: SG Josh Hart (18.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), SF Kris Jenkins (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F/C Darryl Reynolds (4.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
It’s a decorated three-man class that graduated this past spring, one that won more games (129) than any other in Villanova history. Hart, a First Team All-American as a senior and the 2016-17 Big East Player of the Year, finished his Wildcat career as the only player with more than 1,900 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 150 steals; the 6-5 shooting guard was picked in the first round of the NBA Draft (30th overall) by the Los Angeles Lakers and recently inked a deal with Nike.
All Jenkins did was hit the biggest shot not just in Villanova history but perhaps the entire 70-something year history of the NCAA Tournament. Okay, that’s not all -- the 6-6 wing forward finished with 1,383 points and 438 rebounds in a Wildcat uniform, serving as a 3-point specialist off the bench for two years before becoming a mainstay in the starting lineup as a junior and senior. And though he’s likely to spend many years re-enacting his right-wing 3-pointer from the NRG Stadium court, there’s no way he’ll ever get sick of it.
Reynolds didn’t put up the numbers of his classmates, finishing his four years at Villanova with more rebounds (397) than points (327). The Lower Merion grad, who prepped at Worcester Academy (Mass.) before coming back to the Main Line, served a crucial role during the Wildcats’ title run, filling in for Daniel Ochefu for several games and otherwise making sure there wasn’t a rebounding deficit when Ochefu was off the court. Also arguably the best interview in the city over the last few years.
New Faces: F/C Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (Fr./Neumann-Goretti, Pa.) G Collin Gillespie (Fr./Archbishop Wood, Pa.), SF Jermaine Samuels (Fr./Rivers School, Mass.)
Two-thirds of this year’s freshman class is going to be very familiar to local hoops fans. Cosby-Roundtree and Gillespie both starred in the Philadelphia Catholic League, where their teams met in the championship game this year. Gillespie will have bragging rights in that one, as his Vikings beat Cosby-Roundtree’s Saints for Wood’s first-ever championship, with Gillespie winning PCL and PIAA Class 5A Player of the Year honors following a near-flawless senior campaign.
Of the trio, though, it’s Samuels who is the most likely to play the biggest role. A 6-6 wing with tremendous reach (like Mikal Bridges), he can play the ‘2’, ‘3’ and ‘4’ for Villanova at the moment; though they won’t need him to make plays on the ball, he has that ability as well. The biggest thing for Samuels will be his outside shot, but defensively he's ready to go.
Mikal Bridges (above) is one of the Wildcats' most versatile players at 6-6 with a 7-0 wingspan. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Starting Frontcourt: SF Mikal Bridges (9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), F Eric Paschall (7.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg), F/C Omari Spellman (N/A)
The hallmark of this team as a whole, and this group specifically, is versatility. Bridges is a 6-6 wing with a 7-0 wingspan who made nearly 40 percent of his triples a year ago, and the Great Valley alum is also one of the best defenders in the Big East as a redshirt junior. He can play the ‘2’ if the ‘Cats go big, but will typically play the ‘3’ or even ‘4’ in their system. Paschall will slide into the starting lineup this season after coming off the bench for a bit over 20 minutes per game last, but he’s used to a starring role; as a freshman at Fordham in 2014-15, the 6-8, 240-pound wing forward was named A-10 Rookie of the Year after averaging 15.9 ppg and 5.5 rpg.
Then there’s Spellman, the Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year and the player with the most anticipated debut in the city bar none. Last year, Spellman was ruled ineligible coming out of St. Thomas More (Conn.) by the NCAA due to a technicality relating back to his freshman year of high school, forcing the 6-10, 250-pound center to take a redshirt. A former top-25 recruit, Spellman has inside-out offensive abilities ranging out to the 3-point arc, and is a capable rim protector who rebounds everything he gets his hands on.
Starting Backcourt: PG Jalen Brunson (14.7 ppg, 4.1 apg), SG Donte DiVincenzo (8.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
The Big East has some terrific backcourts, and this duo could possibly be its best. Brunson came to Villanova after a McDonald’s All-American high school career at Stevenson (Ill.), and has been a major contributor in each of his first two seasons as a Wildcat. The 2017-18 Big East Preseason Player of the Year was his team’s second-leading scorer last year, taking over point guard duties from one of the program’s all-time greats in Ryan Arcidiacono and not missing a beat. The son of former NBA guard Rick Brunson has a pro’s mentality and is on the short list for best lead guards in the country -- and he’s only a junior.
DiVincenzo didn’t find himself on any Big East preseason award lists, but he could certainly be there at the end. The 6-5 product of Salesianum School (Del.) hit double figures 14 times coming off the bench as a redshirt freshman last year, including a season-high 25-point outing against St. John’s in the first round of the conference tournament. In the Wildcats’ two NCAA Tournament games, he scored 36 points while hitting six of his eight 3-point attempts, grabbing 19 boards and four steals as well. Now entrenched in the starting lineup for the next three seasons, the former “Michael Jordan of Delaware” has a chance to put up huge numbers for the remainder of his college career.
Bench: G Phil Booth (5.7 ppg), F/C Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (N/A), G Collin Gillespie (N/A), F/C Dylan Painter (0.9 ppg), SF Jermaine Samuels (N/A)
The Wright rotation is traditionally eight men deep with a ninth who sees spare minutes, and that’s just about the way this year’s group is shaping up. Booth is an interesting x-factor; the secondary hero of the 2016 National Championship game after scoring a team-high 20 points, he sat out last season with nagging knee issues after appearing in the first three games. He and Wright claim he’s back to full health, but how that will play out remains to be seen. If he can’t go, that might mean more minutes for Gillespie, the team’s only other true ball-handler and an adept 3-point shooter who could earn some minutes on his own right.
In terms of the big men, Cosby-Roundtree might see an advantage over Painter at the ‘5’ position due to his athleticism and defensive abilities, while Painter continues to work on his outside shot and overall mobility. Samuels is sure to see minutes at the ‘3’ and ‘4’ positions depending on lineup, but he’s too talented defensively and is too versatile for Wright to keep him below double-figure minutes.
Three Keys to Success
1. Slashers hit shots. Last year’s WIldcats had five players who hit 36 percent or more of their 3-pointers, but nobody else was above 30 percent; only two other players (Paschall and Booth) even took a 3-point shot. Two of those players, Hart and Jenkins, are now gone, leaving Villanova with just three proven Division I shooters in a system that really needs at least four or five players who can prove reliable from the outside. In order for them to be as efficient offensively as they want to be, they’ll need Paschall, Samuels or even Spellman to make at least a third of their triples and keep a bit of pressure off Brunson, DiVincenzo and Bridges to be on every night.
2. Keep the ball rolling. In terms of general program momentum, there aren’t many around who have it going like ‘Nova. They’ve won the regular-season Big East championship four straight seasons and haven’t lost a Big 5 game in that time either, winning 129 games in total and reaching the top 3 in the AP poll each year. That creates something of an aura around the program at the moment, but with its cast of characters mostly different from that National Championship squad, it’s now on a new group to carry the torch. It only takes a few extra losses to go from seemingly invincible to a team with an exploitable weakness or two.
3. Feed the big man. Though he hasn’t played a minute at the collegiate level, and was absent from Villanova’s only public scrimmage of the preseason, there’s a lot of buzz around Omari Spellman. In high school and on the Nike EYBL circuit, the big-bodied center showed the requisite touch, passing ability, defensive presence and more to be considered a potential one-and-done prospect, especially if he’s improved on his conditioning in his year on the sidelines. He’s the most offensively skilled big man the Wildcats have brought in in quite a long time, and could give them an element inside they’ve never had.
Quotes from opposing coaches on this team
“They’re good, everybody knows how good they are...it seems like it doesn’t matter who’s there, Jay figures it out and gets those guys to buy in and play hard and the culture is outstanding. It’s going to be interesting because they lost a lot, the National Championship year they lost two really good seniors and leaders, last year they lost Josh Hart now and Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds, in the last two years they’ve lost a lot of leadership.”
“They’re going to continue to do what they do, they’ve got it absolutely rolling in terms of how hard they play defensively and switching stuff and who else dives for that many live dribbles from behind. And then just sharing the ball, they’ve really found their niche. I know there’s been much talk about how they went from recruiting those really highly-recruited McDonald’s type kids and they’ve kind of found their type of kids and seem to be getting it right over and over. Losing Josh Hart’s a big one, but they’re kind of getting more talented in some ways, I think Mikal Bridges is at some point going to really break out, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Paschall and Spellman is really talented.”
“I think they’ll be one of the best teams in the country this year. I think they have the best point guard in the country with Brunson, and from what I’m hearing, Omari Spellman, he’s a next level talent. They’re just good. Every year guys step up and they just get better. It’s just a credit to their development.”
Two words: National Championship. That’s not to say anything short of a title is a failure; it’s not like this is a clear-cut top-5 team entering the season, not with so many unproven (yet talented) pieces they’ll have to rely on. But when you have numerous NBA prospects on the roster and the rest future pros at some level, with a mix of size, length, athleticism, effort and talent that most coaches would love to have, then that’s that potential ceiling. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether or not this team will have that same mental makeup of the 2016 squad, considering the entire upperclassman leadership group from that year is now on the next stage of their careers.
This is the thinnest rotation Wright has had in some time, especially in terms of experience, and that gets even thinner if Booth’s knee flares back up. The rest of the Big 5 is much improved this year, as well, and they’re all itching to knock off Nova. It’s possible they lose at St. Joe’s and at Temple in December, as well as against Gonzaga; that being said, we don’t see them going any worse than 8-4 heading into Big East play, barring a disaster at Battle 4 Atlantis. And it’s a Big East that’s out to take down Villanova, with several programs capable of it. Losses to Butler, Seton Hall and several others knock Villanova off the Big East podium, and another NCAA Tournament appearance ends in the first weekend.