Donte DiVincenzo

Even without Phil Booth, Villanova in good hands

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USA Today Images

Even without Phil Booth, Villanova in good hands

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend’s local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Marquette (13-7, 4-4 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (19-1, 6-1 Big East), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
SK:
Villanova visits Marquette Sunday afternoon, returning to the scene of one of their four losses last season. The top-ranked Wildcats will do so shorthanded after learning earlier this week that they will be without one of their best players for the foreseeable future. Junior guard Phil Booth is out indefinitely after fracturing a bone in his right hand during Villanova's win over Providence on Tuesday. 

Remarkably, Booth is the third member of Jay Wright's rotation to miss significant time this season due to a hand injury. Freshman guard Collin Gillespie broke his hand in early December and just returned last week, while fellow freshman guard Jermaine Samuels remains sidelined with a fractured hand. Make no mistake — Booth's injury hurts Villanova the most. He's a terrific two-way player, averaging 11.6 points per game and shooting 43 percent from three-point range while also serving as one of the team's top perimeter defenders. Equally as important, he's a team captain and terrific leader on and off the court.

If Booth follows Gillespie's injury timeline he should return in about six weeks, which would be the start of the Big East Tournament in early March. Expect sophomore Donte DiVincenzo to replace Booth in the starting lineup. DiVincenzo is an outstanding player and previously served as a reserve in name only. As I've written in this column before, he's capable of starting for 98 percent of the teams in the country. The drop-off from Booth to DiVincenzo in the starting lineup shouldn't be too severe. But with DiVincenzo now a starter, the Wildcats bench becomes especially thin with just Gillespie and freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree seeing meaningful minutes. 

Gillespie is the player most impacted by Booth's injury. He'll now be asked to play significantly more minutes at a critical point in Villanova's schedule. Not an easy task considering he's just returning from a lengthy absence due to his own injury.

Life without Booth begins with Sunday's visit to Marquette, a team desperate for a signature win after losing three of their last five games. The Golden Eagles are coming off an 89-70 loss at Xavier on Wednesday. Sophomore guard Markus Howard scored 33 points in the loss to increase his season average to 22.1 points per game. The Wildcats' top priority will be figuring out a way to slow down Howard, something they failed to do earlier this season when he torched them for 37 points.    

Booth's absence will be especially noticeable against Howard and Marquette's talented stable of guards. Considering that Booth is out and the Bradley Center always provides a raucous homecourt advantage, I'm tempted to pick Marquette to upset Villanova on Sunday. But I can't go against Jalen Brunson in this spot. Brunson has done it all for Villanova this season and will now be asked to do even more. Look for a big performance from him this weekend.

Villanova 84, Marquette 77

St. Joseph's (9-10, 4-4 A-10) at Pennsylvania (12-6, 3-0 Ivy), Saturday 7:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia 
AF:
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses, though for different reasons. The Hawks had St. Bonaventure right where they wanted. Despite a 16-4 run in the second half, it was a late drought and untimely mistakes that doomed St. Joseph’s from taking both meetings with the Bonnies this year. Meanwhile, Penn just didn’t have it against Temple last weekend, and the Quakers were never really able to threaten the Owls. 

Side note, the rollout from the Penn student section in that game: “Greatness doesn’t quit but one and done-phy should” was in poor form. I get that he doesn’t have a great NCAA tournament record, but the man brought plenty of success to Penn’s program and was just inducted into the school’s hall of fame. That would be like Kentucky fans maligning Rick Pitino, who singlehandedly saved the Wildcats program from certain death... okay, okay. I get it. But still, it’s a bad look for a man who has done so much for your school. 

Back to the game: It’s the final Big 5 game in more than a month for the Quakers, with only La Salle and St. Joseph’s left on the city schedule in March. Ryan Betley continues to be the workhouse for Steve Donahue. The sophomore has posted double-digit scoring in 12 of the last 13 for Penn and only four of those were in losses. When he gets going, it’s tough for opponents to stop him and the Quakers. 

The Hawks, meanwhile, had things going in the right direction with two straight wins before their stumble against the Bonnies. They still have the talent to win plenty of games in the Atlantic 10. They still have their signature defense and low turnover margin that keeps them in games when scoring is at a premium. It’s just a matter of putting it all together for Phil Martelli’s team. And they could really use Charlie Brown, who is still sidelined with a wrist injury. 

I thought the Quakers would beat Temple last week. So I’m hesitant to pick them again. And I think that Martelli has figured something out with his team that will get them back on track.  

St. Joseph’s 70, Penn 68  

Connecticut (11-9, 4-3 AAC) at Temple (10-10, 2-6 AAC), Sunday 8:00 pm
SK:
Temple limps into Sunday night's matchup with UConn following Wednesday's 75-42 loss at No. 9 Cincinnati. The Owls are 3-7 in their last 10 games and in danger of falling out of contention in the AAC before the calendar even gets to February. Meanwhile, UConn is coming off its best win of the season, an 11-point victory over SMU on Wednesday. It was an impressive bounce-back performance following last weekend's 20-point home loss to Villanova. 

While UConn enters this weekend's game with significantly more momentum than Temple, I view these two programs in a similar light. They were both premiere programs in the not too distant past — UConn winning four national championships from 1999-2014, while Temple went to five Elite Eights under John Chaney and was a regular in the NCAA Tournament in the early years of the Fran Dunphy era. But each program has lost a sizable amount of luster the last few years playing in the AAC. Both schools joined the conference for football reasons and their basketball programs have suffered. I'm not saying a poor conference fit is the only reason Temple and UConn are struggling, but it certainly doesn't help matters.

The question for both Temple and UConn now: Can they get back on track? In each case it will take some time. As far as the immediate future, Temple needs a win Sunday if the Owls have any hopes of turning their season around and making a push towards the postseason in February. Something tells me they'll find a way to beat UConn. I watched the Huskies for 40 minutes last weekend against Villanova and came away unimpressed. Granted, Temple isn't Villanova. But the Owls are playing at home and shouldn't be lacking for motivation after getting blown out by Cincinnati.

Temple 68, UConn 64

Northeastern (14-7, 7-2 CAA) at Drexel (8-14, 2-7 CAA), Saturday, 2:00 pm
AF:
The Dragons are coming off one of their most impressive performances of the season, maybe second only to the win over Charleston. They overcame a poor shooting night from Kurk Lee and beat an Elon team that shot nearly 50 percent from the field. How, you ask? Forty points from Tremaine Isabell. Forty. The Missouri transfer went 14 for 23 and made seven 3-pointers in just 32 minutes of work. That’ll do it alright. Isabell has been so impressive this season, but the Dragons need more balance in scoring, kind of like the team they’ll face Saturday.

Speaking of, that is a matchup with the top team in the CAA in Northeastern. The Huskies have won four in a row and are averaging 82 points in that span. Not only that, they are coming off a win in which three players posted a double-double. In their win over Hofstra, Northeastern saw five different players finish with double-digit scoring. They are a complete team and that’s why they only have two conference losses. 

However, and here’s your silver lining Drexel fans, one of those two losses came at the hands of Charleston. And guess who the Huskies face right after Drexel? Yup. So there is a chance Northeastern overlooks Drexel a bit ahead of the rematch with Charleston. But I think this Huskies team has their foot on the gas pedal and is rolling through the CAA. 

Northeastern 79, Drexel 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
18-8
Amy Fadool: 13-14

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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AP Images

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.

How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

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NBCSP/USA Today Images

How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

Mikal Bridges put his own personal stamp on Villanova's most impressive win of the young season Tuesday night. That stamp came in the form of a soaring, one-handed jam over a trio of Gonzaga defenders, accounting for two of his career-high 28 points in the fourth-ranked Wildcats' easier than expected 16-point win at Madison Square Garden.

Bridges' comments after the game were as impressive as that dunk and his overall performance, best illustrating how far he's come in four years at Villanova. Bridges was asked by the Big East Digital Network about his leadership style.

"I'm trying to lead by doing all the little things," Bridges said. "Let the young guys watch me do all the little things and they know if our captain, our leader is doing that, then they're going to do the same thing."   

If you closed your eyes and listened to those words, you could have sworn they were coming from Josh Hart last year. Or Ryan Arcidiacono the year before that, or Darrun Hilliard three years ago. Bridges spent the early portion of his college career watching and learning from all of those star players. It enabled him to transition seamlessly into a leadership role once it became his turn to lead. That cycle is the biggest reason for Villanova's unprecedented run of success the past five seasons. 

No player embodies "Villanova Basketball" more so than Bridges. His story is unique in this age of one-and-done college basketball stars. He has taken the road less traveled to becoming one of the best players in the country and standing on the brink of NBA stardom. 

Patience pays off
Bridges arrived at Villanova in the Fall of 2014 as a Top 100 recruit but nowhere near a finished product. While he dominated at the high school level at nearby Great Valley, it became apparent rather quickly that he needed to bulk up his wiry frame to compete at the Big East level. 

Jay Wright presented the possibility of red-shirting to Bridges — the idea being to spend a year practicing with the team but more importantly getting stronger in the weight room. It was a reasonable suggestion albeit one that was hard for Bridges to accept. He had been a star his whole basketball career and the thought of not playing a game for 12 months must have seemed like an eternity.    

Bridges made the difficult decision to sit out for a year. It was the right move. He's gone from red-shirting in 2015 to being the sixth man for a national championship team in 2016 to the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and now an All-American candidate as a junior who could end up being a lottery pick in six months. 

There's been a lot of attention given to the fact that five of Villanova's top six players red-shirted at some point during their careers. In actuality, only Bridges made the decision to do so without being forced into it either by injury or NCAA guidelines. Phil Booth was sidelined by a knee injury last year. Donte DiVincenzo broke his foot early in his freshman season. Eric Paschall had to sit out a year after transferring from Fordham. Omari Spellman was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA last season. 

But Bridges didn't have to red-shirt. He thought it would be best for his growth and development. As the rest of the college basketball world is currently finding out, he was right.

Draft stock soaring
Bridges was already popping up in 2018 mock drafts prior to the start of the season. His long, lanky body type and high-end athleticism are tailor-made for the NBA, enabling him to be disruptive on the defensive end and explosive offensively.  

Bridges proved himself an efficient shooter last year, knocking down 55 percent of his field goal attempts, 39 percent of his threes and 91 percent of his foul shots. But he was often the fourth option on a team featuring Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson. Factor in a dip in production in March and there were serious questions concerning Bridges heading into his junior season. Namely, how would he respond being a focal point of the Villanova offense? And could he find that level of consistency that often alluded him?

Less than a month into the season, those questions have been answered. Through nine games, he's averaging 19.0 points in addition to 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. He's shooting 57 percent from the field and a ridiculous 51 percent from three-point range. Bridges was at his best when the lights were brightest — those career-high 28 points against Gonzaga came in front of dozens of NBA scouts at Madison Square Garden. 

As a result, Bridges has ensured he will be a first-round pick should he decide to leave Villanova next spring. With more performances like the one he delivered against Gonzaga, the lottery seems like a more and more realistic destination. 

Bridges is poised to join Hart as the only first-round picks from Villanova in the last 12 years. He could join perennial All-Star Kyle Lowry as the only Villanova players in the Jay Wright Era who left school early and became first-round picks. But for the next four months, Bridges will be focused on bringing another Big East championship and potentially another national title to Villanova. As he's shown throughout the course of his career, he's not one to get ahead of himself.