Daniel Ochefu (above) will man the middle for a guard-heavy 'Nova squad this year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of CoBL's 2015-16 College Season Preview, which will run from October 2-November 13, the first day of games. For the complete rundown, click here)
2015-16 Villanova Wildcats Season Primer
Coach: Jay Wright, 15th season (319-152, .677)
Last Year: 33-3 overall, 16-2 Big East; won Big East championship (Xavier, 69-52), lost NCAA Tournament Round of 32 (N.C. State, 71-68)
One could call Villanova’s 2014-15 season both a resounding success and a disappointing failure, and in a way both are correct. The Wildcats were phenomenal from November through the first half of March, winning a program-record 33 games, a Big East regular-season and tournament title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time ever. The offense was surgical in its precision, with the top eight players in the rotation all working together seamlessly, working the ball around for the best possible look (often from 3-point range).
But raised expectations mean that any failure gets magnified, and when Villanova’s season ended before the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend had concluded for the sixth year in a row, it felt like this was an opportunity that they really let slip away. The 16-game win streak that the Wildcats carried into their Round of 32 game against N.C. State was the longest in program history, but they never could get things going against the Wolfpack and ultimately fell just short of that Sweet 16.
Key Losses: Darrun Hilliard (14.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Dylan Ennis (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), PF JayVaughn Pinkston (9.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Though Villanova’s ceiling this year is indeed still very high, this is a trio that Wright and staff won’t just be able to replace with a snap of their fingers. Hilliard and Pinkston combined to play in a combined 268 games over the last four seasons; Hilliard developed from a skinny 6-6 shooter out of the Lehigh Valley into an all-Big East selection as a senior, while the 6-7 Pinkston matched him with over 1500 points and grabbed more than 740 rebounds as well. Though neither will go down in the record books among the greatest to ever wear the uniform, they both certainly had their share of big moments and both will be remembered for helping bring the program back after a 13-19 season their freshman year.
Less expected--though not entirely shocking--was the early departure of Ennis, who averaged 7.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg and 2.7 apg in his two years at ‘Nova after spending his freshman year at Rice. The athletic, 6-3 combo guard graduated from Villanova and elected to use his final season of eligibility at the University of Oregon, where he’s hoping he can play more with the ball in his hands. While he was a capable 3-point shooter (34.2 percent at ‘Nova), where the Wildcats will most have to replace his production will be on the defensive end, where he used his muscular frame to cause issues for opposing guards.
New Faces: PG Jalen Brunson (Fr./Stevenson HS, Ill.), PF Tim Delaney (Fr./Blair Academy, N.J.), G Donte Divincenzo (Fr./Salesianum, Del.)
Over the last few years, Wright has done a very good job on the recruiting trail of bringing in guys who might not necessarily be blue-chip prospects, but are top-50 and top-75 prospects that fit well into his system and mesh well with the mentality he wants to permeate the program. That changed in 2009, when he landed Mouphtaou Yarou (No. 18 according to ESPN), Dominic Cheek (No. 19) and Maalik Wayns (No. 23)--but that group certainly wasn’t successful, with Cheek and Wayns bolting for the professional ranks after winning just 13 games as juniors, the only year in the last 11 that Villanova wasn’t in the NCAA Tournament.
Brunson, at No. 16 in ESPN’s 2015 rankings, comes into Villanova with more hype around him than any freshman the campus has seen in some time. The 6-foot-1 point guard, the son of Temple star and longtime NBA reserve Rick Brunson, was a McDonald’s All-American and really opened eyes this summer in leading his country to the FIBA U-19 championship; he was named MVP of that tournament. His arrival on campus has some thinking he could be the piece needed to lead the Wildcats back to the Sweet 16 or beyond, but how he fits into a crowded backcourt will be something to watch moving forward.
Also joining the perimeter group is Divincenzo, who is certainly something different than 'Nova already had on the perimeter. Divincenzo is a high-flying 6-4 wing guard who can play above the rim on both ends of the court, similar to the way Ennis could rise up and deny even forwards going up to the rim. He'll also be very useful in 'Nova's full-court press, with great hands and the ability to start a break or finish it.
Finally, Delaney is a 6-8 stretch-forward originally from Pitman HS (N.J.) before doing his prep year at Blair. A solid outside shooter, Delaney was expected to come in and contribute as a pick-and pop big man right away, but surgery to repair a torn labrum has him sidelined indefinitely. Wright and company could certainly use the additional size on the roster, so they'll hope to get him back at some point if possible, but have to plan for the worst-case scenario of him missing the whole year.
Starting Frontcourt: C Daniel Ochefu (9.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
One of a few NBA prospects on the squad is their 6-11 senior center, who had a breakout junior season and established himself as a player to watch this season. The Nigeria native, a product of the Westtown School (Pa.), jumped his scoring average from 5.7 to 9.2 pg and his rebounds from 6.1 to 8.5 rpg despite only playing two extra minutes per game, and he shot 64.4 percent from the floor to boot. He might be called upon to play 30 minutes per game this season due to lack of depth in the frontcourt, and if he can stay out of foul trouble there's no reason he can't lead the nation in double-doubles.
Josh Hart (above) has been incredibly solid in his first two years at Villanova. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL0
Starting Backcourt: PG Jalen Brunson (DNP), G Ryan Arcidiacono (10.1 ppg, 3.6 apg), G Phil Booth (5.8 ppg, 1.4 apg), SG Josh Hart (10.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
There’s a legitimate chance that, all of the above four guards average double figures this season--that’s how deep and talented this group is. It starts with Arcidiacono, the co-Big East Player of the Year a season ago and a preseason all-conference first team selection this season. A four-year starter, the Neshaminy grad has steadily built his reputation up over the last three years as a gritty, do-it-all point guard whose efficiency numbers have gotten better each year.
Arcidiacono is one of two of the above quartet who is guaranteed a starting role this season, along with Hart. A 6-5 wing who was surprisingly left off the all-Big East preseason teams, Hart had an incredibly efficient sophomore year, shooting 51.5 percent overall and 46.4 percent from 3-point range, almost never taking a bad shot and playing right into Wright's unselfish system. He's getting NBA looks of his own, but might be the third-best prospect on the team now behind Ochefu and Brunson.
The last two spots will almost certainly go to Booth, who played tremendously in just under 15 minutes per game as a freshman, and the aforementioned Brunson. It’s possible that either of them serves as the team’s sixth man, with junior combo forward Kris Jenkins joining the starting lineup, but it would be tough to see Wright keep either of the two off the court for long. Booth, a 6-3 sophomore guard, put up his numbers on 56.3 percent shooting and 48.5 percent from 3-point range in just 14.5 minutes, incredible numbers for a freshman that if they held up over 25 minutes per game would make him one of the most efficient scorers in the country.
Bench: F Kris Jenkins (6.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg), PF Darryl Reynolds (1.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg), G Donte Divincenzo, PF Tim Delaney, SF Mikal Bridges (DNP)
If Jenkins doesn’t get that starting spot, he’ll be the first man off the bench. A 6-6 combo forward, Jenkins is a smooth outside shooter who’s made right around 37 percent of his 3-point attempts each of his first two seasons on campus. He made a big step forward in shot selection as a sophomore, increasing his 2-point percentage from 37.8 percent to 59.4 percent, though he takes about three times as many 3-pointers as he does 2-point shots.
Reynolds, a 6-8 junior forward who graduated from Lower Merion in 2012 before doing a prep year at Worcester Academy (Mass.), is the first and only real post option that Villanova has off the bench, with the 6-8 Delaney, a freshman more of a stretch forward (and currently injured) rather than a strong interior defender.
DiVincenzo and Bridges will also compete for minutes on the perimeter, and both should get playing time; Bridges, a 6-7 redshirt freshman, spent last year getting stronger, but the Great Valley grad is a talented shooter who could surprise people a year or two down the road.
Three Games to Watch
1. @ Virginia (Dec. 19). Villanova and Virginia had very similar seasons last year: like ‘Nova, UVa went 16-2 in league play, winning the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And like Villanova, Virginia bowed out before reaching the second weekend, losing to seven-seed Michigan State in the Round of 32 a year after reaching the Sweet 16. Gone is star wing Justin Anderson (12.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) to the NBA, but shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon (14.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg) returns, as does the team’s third-leading scorer and leading rebounder, redshirt senior forward Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
2. @ Temple (Feb. 17). This should be fun for a lot of reasons. Primary amongst them is the fact that it’s the first (and maybe only) time that Jalen Brunson, son of former Temple star Rick Brunson, will play against his dad’s former team on its home court; Temple and Villanova were his final two schools before he committed to ‘Nova last summer. There’s also quite a bit of freshmen familiarity--Alston and Lowe were AAU teammates and good friends with ‘Nova freshman guard Donte Divincenzo with Team Final last summer, and this will be one of several Big 5 games that feature Team Final alums going head-to-head.
3. vs. Georgetown (March 5). The top two selections in the Big East preseason poll will meet on the final day of the regular season, as the Hoyas visit Philadelphia in what could be a big game for seeding at Madison Square Garden the following week. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera made the decision to return for his senior year after averaging 16.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 3.2 apg a year ago, and the Hoyas will benefit greatly from one more year of their leader. He’ll be mentoring a group of eight sophomores and freshmen, including a pair of four-star freshmen in center Jessie Govan and power forward Marcus Derrickson.
Three Keys to Success
1. Guard chemistry. The backcourt of Brunson, Arcidiacono, Booth and Hart is the most talented one that Wright has had at his disposal since Allen Ray, Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye and Mike Nardi shared the rock back in 2005-06, but it was in that group’s second year that they went 28-5 and reached the Elite 8 for the first time under wright. Whether or not Brunson is around for longer than just one year is still to be determined, so they’ll need to get him playing like a veteran from the get-go. Though it’s easier said than done, Brunson has certainly looked like one of those freshmen capable of stepping in at a high level right away.
2. Darryl Reynolds. The former Lower Merion big man has been largely biding his time on the ‘Nova bench for the last two seasons, seeing just over four minutes per game in 43 games over that time. With Pinkston gone and Delaney hurt, however, he’s the only true forward that Villanova has on the roster besides Ochefu, though Jenkins could serve as an undersized stretch-four in Wright’s system. And though Ochefu will probably see close to 30 minutes per game, that leaves at least 10-15 minutes where Reynolds will need to come in and play at a high level if his team is going to make a deep run.
3. Win in March. As good as Jay Wright’s teams have been in the regular season the last few years, it’s been six seasons since Villanova’s last appearance in the second weekend of the Big Dance. And as good as this year’s team might be, it’s all going to be for naught if they fall short of making it there for the seventh consecutive year. On a single-year basis, an early loss in the tournament is not an indication of failure, but this is the third season in a row where ‘Nova is likely to be ranked in or near the top 15 teams all season long, and at some point that regular-season success needs to translate over onto the biggest stage for the Wildcats to truly feel good about what they’ve accomplished and to get the “underachiever” label off their backs.