Donte DiVincenzo

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

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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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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.

10 most important Big 5 players this season

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10 most important Big 5 players this season

The college basketball season starts Friday and there is no shortage of storylines in the Big 5. 

Villanova is once again the team to beat in the Big East and a legitimate national championship contender.

Saint Joseph's should be a big factor in the Atlantic 10 race if the Hawks can avoid the injury bug, something they failed to do last season and are struggling with already this year.

Temple and La Salle aim to rebound from lackluster seasons, while Penn has the talent to return to the top of the Ivy League standings.

Coaches tend to get the bulk of the attention in college basketball but it's the players who ultimately decide the outcome of a season. Here is a list of 10 players to watch in the Big 5 — not necessarily the best players in the city, but guys who will have the biggest impact in determining their team's level of success this winter.

1. Jalen Brunson (junior guard, Villanova)
The first name on this list just so happens to be the best player in the city. Brunson enters his junior year at Villanova as a first team preseason All-American, preseason Big East Player of the Year, and arguably the best point guard in the country. He's on track to graduate early in the spring so chances are this will be his final season with the Wildcats. The NBA awaits for Brunson, who has lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he arrived at Villanova three years ago. He has the rare ability to take over a game single-handedly while also elevating the play of his teammates. Brunson will be counted on for more scoring and an increased leadership role this season — things that come naturally for a player who is poised to put together one of the finest seasons in school history.

2. Charlie Brown (sophomore forward, Saint Joseph's)
As Brown goes, so goes St. Joe's. His sophomore year got off to an unfortunate start — a preseason wrist injury put his status at the beginning of the season in question. But when he's healthy, Brown is a flat out difference-maker — a silky smooth wing who should take a sizable leap during his second season on Hawk Hill. That's saying something considering how good Brown was as a freshman. He is an NBA-level talent who will be a force in the Atlantic 10, a player capable of carrying St. Joe's back to the NCAA Tournament. 

3. AJ Brodeur (sophomore forward, Penn)
Brodeur has a chance to be not only one of the best players ever to play at Penn but also one of the best players in Ivy League history as well. If his freshman season was any indication, big things are in store over the next three years. He led the Quakers in scoring and rebounding as a freshman and set a program record with 66 blocked shots. You don't typically see a player as talented as Brodeur in the Ivy League. He could play and succeed in any conference. In fact, he turned down offers from Notre Dame and Boston College coming out of high school. Brodeur is the type of player who should lead Penn to accomplishments that were routine for the Quakers not too long ago — Ivy League championships and trips to the NCAA Tournament. 

4. Josh Brown (senior guard, Temple)
Last season was beyond frustrating for Brown, who tore his Achilles tendon in May 2016 and worked his way back to action for a handful of games before being shut down for the remainder of the season. Temple struggled without its floor general — Brown is the type of point guard who keeps the Owls organized on both ends of the floor. He now has a clean bill of health and is aiming to finish out his career on North Broad Street on a winning note. Temple has the talent to compete for an AAC title. It will be up to Brown to lead them in that direction.

5. Donte DiVincenzo (sophomore guard, Villanova)
DiVincenzo is my choice for Big 5 breakout player of the year if there was such an award. His coach, Jay Wright, compared him to Josh Hart last season, which qualifies as high praise. With Hart now in the NBA, DiVincenzo has the opportunity to develop into one of the best players in all of college basketball. He certainly has the talent. He's a tremendous athlete with a well-rounded offensive skill set and the potential to be a lockdown perimeter defender. He was arguably Villanova's best player in the NCAA Tournament last year. Expect that upward trajectory to carry over into his sophomore season. 

6. B.J. Johnson (senior guard, La Salle)
Johnson was as good as advertised in his first season at La Salle after transferring from Syracuse, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior. He'll look to continue that production in his final collegiate season, but more importantly he'll try to pile up more wins for the Explorers following last season's 15-15 finish that included a 9-9 mark in A-10 play. La Salle has the requisite offensive firepower with Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes leading the way. But it's on Johnson to lead them in a way that translates into more victories.    

7. Omari Spellman (freshman forward, Villanova)
Spellman makes his much anticipated Villanova debut after being ruled academically ineligible last season. That ruling hurt the Wildcats on the floor last year but could end up being a blessing in disguise in terms of Spellman's long-term development. He used the last 12 months to shed 40 pounds while familiarizing himself with how the Villanova program operates. He should be very comfortable stepping into a critical role for the Wildcats this season. Spellman has the ability to be one of the best post players to ever play for Jay Wright. He is ultra talented on the low block, able to shoot the three-pointer and will serve as the backbone of the Wildcats' interior defense. The combination of Spellman inside and Villanova's arsenal of perimeter weapons spells trouble for opponents this season. 

8. Shavar Newkirk (senior guard, Saint Joseph's)
Newkirk went down with a season-ending knee injury last year after just 12 games. He was averaging more than 20 points at the time of the injury and the Hawks were never able to recover from his absence. They were 7-5 at the time of Newkirk's injury then proceeded to go 4-15 without him. Newkirk still isn't 100 percent healthy — rehabbing a torn ACL tends to take more than a calendar year. But he should be back in the Hawks' lineup sooner rather than later, possibly as early as Saturday's season-opener against Toledo. Expect him to slowly regain his confidence and explosiveness and eventually return to form as one of the top lead guards in the Atlantic 10. 

9. Ryan Betley (sophomore guard, Penn)
A broken hand forced Betley to miss the first month of his freshman year but by the time last season ended he had established himself as Penn's second-best player behind Brodeur. Betley finished the season by scoring in double figures in eight straight games, averaging just under 18 points during that span. He has a killer instinct that his coach, Steve Donahue, values in his players. Combine that with his skills on the perimeter and Betley should be in contention for First Team All-Ivy honors.  

10. Obi Enechionyia (senior forward, Temple)
No player is more critical to Temple's success than Enechionyia, who is extremely talented but hasn't been able to put it all together to this point in his career. He'll get one last shot this year at developing into the consistent offensive force the Owls need him to be. There aren't many players in college basketball with Enechionyia's skill set — he's 6-foot-10 with the ability to play on the perimeter and knock down threes. But after a promising start to his junior season, he slumped during the critical months of January and February. Consistency is the key for Enechionyia for his final season in a Temple uniform. 

Honorable Mention
Mikal Bridges, Pookie Powell, Shizz Alston, Lamarr Kimble, Phil Booth, Antonio Woods, Eric Paschall, Amar Stukes