Donte DiVincenzo (above) is ready to move into a starring role for 'Nova after a breakout 2017 NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Austin Petolillo (@AustinPSports)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
If it wasn’t for an injury to Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo might not be primed to become one of the Big East’s breakout stars.
When Booth went down with a knee injury that sidelined him for most of the 2017-18 season, the only member of the Villanova Wildcats that could fill that spot in the rotation was the athletic 6-foot-5 guard from Salesianum High School.
DiVincenzo, alongside 6-8 forward Eric Paschall, were thrown into the rotation last year due to injuries to Booth and center Darryl Reynolds, as well as the ineligibility of freshman big man Omari Spellman.
“Because Darryl was out for a while, Phil didn’t play, Omari didn’t play, Donte and Eric got to be big-time contributors,” head coach Jay Wright said. “They might not be in the position they are now if not for last year."
Before DiVincenzo’s injury in 2015-16, he averaged a little under two points and averaged two rebounds in only 9.3 minutes per game. But once his minutes increased last year, his impact increased as well.
Divincenzo saw a huge jump in practically every statistic, going from 1.9 ppg to 8.8 ppg, 0.5 apg to 1.7 apg, 2.0 rpg to 3.8 rpg and 9.3 mpg to 25.5 mpg and even earned an appearance on the All-Big East freshman team and was named Big 5 Rookie of the Year.
This year, he’s poised to become one of the go-to players on the perennial top-25 program, which once again has its sights set on the biggest prize in collegiate basketball.
“It’s exciting, to see Donte continue to grow and continue to want to improve,” Wright said. “He finished strong last year and he did not relax in the offseason, he just went to work and wanted to get better.”
“Donte’s definitely grown as a player,” junior guard Jalen Brunson said of DiVincenzo. “He’s gotten better, his work ethic has tremendously grown and I think just the way he works, he lacks no confidence and he just continues to get better every day.”
Last year, the Wildcats were able to rely upon their senior core of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins for a bulk of their scoring, both finishing in the top three on the team in scoring with 18.7 ppg and 13.1 ppg, respectively. Brunson averaged 14.7 ppg during his sophomore season to finish between them.
Hart, a 6-5 wing, finished his Villanova career as the school’s 10th all-time leading scorer with 1,921 points spanning over four seasons with the Wildcats. Jenkins, a 6-6 wing, finished with 1,383 points in his career, good for 36th all-time; he also hit the most famous shot in the program’s history, a buzzer-beating three to lift the Wildcats to their second National Championship victory in school history.
“There was just so much attention on those guys, Jalen included, they were game-planning against those guys, so I found myself open,” DiVincenzo said. “They had confidence in me, I knew I had to have confidence in myself.”
With Hart and Jenkins gone, someone’s going to need to step up if the Wildcats are going to win their fifth consecutive regular season Big East championship.
Jalen Brunson (above) was voted the 2017-18 Big East Preseason Player of the Year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Villanova has always had a “go-to scorer” to go to in tight situations in recent years. Hart, Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard and James Bell are some of the players that the Wildcats have trusted in the past few seasons.
Similar to past years, there are multiple guys who Wright thinks are more than capable of handling the scoring duties on any night. Aside from Brunson and DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges returns for his redshirt junior season after averaging 9.8 ppg and hitting 39 percent of his triples; redshirt junior guard Phil Booth was the first hero of the national championship game two years ago, scoring 20 points before Jenkins’ 3 won it.
“I think this team has the chance to use different guys in that position,” Wright said. “Donte can certainly do it, Jalen can do it, Jalen’s real comfortable doing it, Mikal can do it, Phil Booth can do it, I hope we can develop to a point where each guy is ready in that situation to be a go-to guy.”
Coming into the season, much of the focus is going to be on Brunson, the Big East Preseason Player of the Year and the son of former Temple and NBA point guard RIck Brunson.
Possessing a mature mindset since the day he arrived on campus, Brunson is far from the type to soak up any praise, constantly deflecting to his teammates or a team-first mentality during interviews. But he admitted that playing a starring role at the highest levels of hoops is something that’s been on his mind for a long time.
“That’s what every kid wants,” Brunson said. “Growing up, they want to be the guy and they want to be everything. I’m just really focused on my teammates and focused on trying to go into each game, play hard, play together with my teammates and just make the right play at the right time.”
Divincenzo showed towards the end of the season that he can be a reliable bucket-getter at the high-major level. First came a three-game stretch in February where he scored 20 points against St. John’s, 15 points against Georgetown, and 17 points against Xavier at the Cintas Center, one of the toughest places to play as an opposing player. All of those games resulted in a victory for Villanova.
Divincenzo was phenomenal in postseason play as well. Scoring a season-high 25 points against St. John’s in the Big East Quarterfinals, Divincenzo capped off his season going 14-of-26 (53 percent) from the field and averaging 18 points per game in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
“I think that was the biggest thing, just playing with Josh and Kris and Darryl, three great seniors, they were pumping me up all year,” Divincenzo said. “When it came down to do it, things started flowing for me and I just gained confidence, that just boosted my confidence.
“When we lost those guys, it just gave me more drive to work harder in the offseason because we lost three great players,” he added. “There’s going to be a real big gap there, that just drove me confidence-wise to work hard in the offseason.”