Mikal Bridges

Villanova the 2018 NCAA champions? The odds are favorable

Villanova the 2018 NCAA champions? The odds are favorable

One year ago, on Tuesday, Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit "the shot" to defeat North Carolina 77-74 in the 2016 national championship game. 

This year, Villanova suffered a second-round loss to an under-seeded Wisconsin team. But 'Nova has a good chance to win it all in 2018. 

The Wildcats have 14/1 odds of winning the 2018 NCAA national championship, according to Bovada.

Kentucky tops the list with odds at 9/1. Newly-crowned champions UNC have 12/1 odds, while Duke sits at 14/1, along with Villanova, Gonzaga, Kansas and Louisville.

Wisconsin, which knocked off ‘Nova this year, has 66/1 odds. South Carolina, this year’s Cinderella story, has 100/1 odds.

Rounding out the list are Temple and St. Joe’s, each given 1,000/1 odds.

Why the odds make sense
The Wildcats' roster next season will be led by four juniors: Phil Booth, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall. Booth, who was injured during the 2016 championship game, should be fully recovered from an arthroscopic procedure performed on his knee last May. Booth technically should be going into his senior year, but an impending medical red shirt would give the point guard two more years of eligibility.

Brunson may go through the NBA draft process like Jenkins and Josh Hart did last season, but it's certainly possible he returns to school. The NBA allows college underclassmen to work out for teams and go to the draft combine, but can return to school if they do not hire an agent. 

Brunson, in 36 games last season, averaged 14.7 points and 2.6 rebounds. Bridges averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 33 games. Both players shot 54 percent from the field.  

The final junior, Eric Paschall, averaged 7.2 points per game and shot 51 percent from the field.  

The Wildcats will also return rebound-machine Donte Divincenzo. The red-shirt freshman averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 rebounds off the bench in the regular season. The reserve played his best basketball during the NCAA Tournament, when he averaged 18 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. 

In addition to those players, the Wildcats will also add five-star recruit Omari Spellman, who was ruled academically ineligible this past season. The forward should provide an inside presence for Villanova next season. 

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

College basketball's Final Four is set. Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina head to Arizona this week in hopes of winning two more games for the right to call themselves national champions. 

Villanova stood tall this time last year, winning the school's second ever national championship thanks to Kris Jenkins' buzzer beater against North Carolina.
 
Despite being the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, Villanova fell considerably short of winning a second straight national title. The Wildcats' second-round loss to Wisconsin brought about an abrupt end to an otherwise successful season, one that saw them win a fourth straight Big East regular season championship and second Big East Tournament in the last three years.
 
Villanova says goodbye to the winningest senior class in school history in Jenkins, Josh Hart and Darryl Reynolds, but there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next season. Here is a breakdown of the Wildcats' projected rotation for 2017-18, one that should have Villanova ranked in the top five of most preseason polls. Players are listed in order of importance to the Wildcats' success next season.
 
Jalen Brunson
This comes with a caveat, as Brunson is still deciding whether to test the NBA draft waters following his sophomore season. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Brunson decides to go through the draft process like Hart did last year -- the NBA allows college underclassmen to work out for teams and go to the draft combine but still return to school provided they don't hire an agent. If those opportunities are available, why not take advantage of them?
 
Chances are Brunson will ultimately return to Villanova for his junior season. If he does, he'll be a strong candidate for the preseason Player of the Year in the Big East after earning first-team all-conference honors this past year. Brunson came into his own as Villanova's unquestioned floor general following the graduation of Ryan Arcidiacono, averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists. Brunson was very efficient throughout his sophomore season -- he shot 54 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 87 percent from the foul line.
 
Brunson should be one of the best players in all of college basketball next season, the type of player capable of lifting Villanova to the heights it has grown accustomed to over the past four years.    
 
Phil Booth
He played only three games this past season, but there's no disputing how important a healthy Booth will be for Villanova's fortunes next season. Booth played through left knee soreness two years ago as a sophomore and capped that season with a 20-point performance in the National Championship Game. He had arthroscopic surgery on the knee last May and by all accounts progressed nicely through the summer and fall. But the pain returned once the season started and Booth was shut down in late November. The hope at the time was he would return in a few weeks, but weeks turned into months and Booth never returned.
 
Head coach Jay Wright was optimistic last week when discussing Booth's health moving forward. Wright revealed that Booth returned to practice late in the season and said he expects his playmaking guard to be 100 percent healthy next year. Booth will likely apply for a medical redshirt and will retain his junior eligibility for the 2017-18 season.

If he's healthy (and that's understandably a big if) Booth is one of the best perimeter players in the Big East. He is an explosive scorer on the offensive end capable of playing either guard position. In Brunson and Booth, Villanova would have one of the premier 1-2 backcourt punches in the country.
 
Donte DiVincenzo
DiVincenzo picked up steam as the year progressed and will enter next season as one of the key cogs in the Villanova attack. He answered the bell in a big way on college basketball's biggest stage, averaging 18 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Wildcats' two NCAA Tournament games. DiVincenzo is an elite athlete and relentless competitor on both ends of the floor. Wright compared DiVincenzo to a young Josh Hart midway through the season, and that seems like an apt comparison.
 
Whether DiVincenzo follows Hart's career arc remains to be seen, but he'll likely enter his sophomore season penciled into Villanova's starting lineup. DiVincenzo should get the bulk of his playing time on the wing next year, but he's also comfortable bringing the ball up the floor when needed. He's earned the label of a rising star, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up a strong finish to his red-shirt freshman season.
 
Mikal Bridges
Bridges' sophomore season numbers were solid, but his production tailed off down the stretch, bottoming out in the final game against Wisconsin when he was held scoreless in 29 minutes. When he's on his game, Bridges is a dynamic player offensively and one of the top defensive players in the country. To that end, he was one of three players to share the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award last season. But Bridges' confidence appeared to dip in March, and Villanova will need him firing on all cylinders for his junior season.
 
Bridges will likely serve as a stretch four for the Wildcats next year, relying on his 39.3 three-point field goal percentage to stretch opposing defenses out to the perimeter. He'll also be asked to regularly guard bigger players in the post. In short, he'll be carrying a heavy burden on both ends of the court. How he responds will be key to the Wildcats extending their run of success into next season.
 
Omari Spellman
Villanova was able to survive Spellman's absence throughout the regular season, but it caught up with them in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats needed more size and a physical presence in the post in their season-ending loss to Wisconsin, and Spellman would have provided both. He arrived at Villanova last summer billed as a five-star recruit who was poised to contribute immediately on the frontline. But in September he was ruled academically ineligible for the season, the issue stemming from the timeline during which Spellman earned his high school credits.
 
Spellman was able to practice with the team all season, an experience that should only benefit him next season. He also transformed his body during his year on the sidelines and shed considerable weight from his high school playing days. This should all add up to Spellman's making a big time impact next year, when he should be Villanova's primary inside scoring option.
 
Eric Paschall
Because of Spellman's ineligibility, Paschall was forced to play inside far more often than originally anticipated this past season. He was a more of a wing during his freshman year at Fordham, when he won the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. Expect him to be a combination of the two next year -- still logging minutes in the post but also playing out on the perimeter more frequently. If Wright goes with a starting lineup of Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo, Bridges and Spellman, Paschall would give Villanova a versatile sixth man option off the bench.
 
Regardless of whether he's in the starting lineup, Paschall should regularly play 20-25 minutes per game. Next year will be Paschall's third in the Villanova program following his decision to transfer from Fordham. Don't be surprised to see him take a significant step forward in a role he's more accustomed to playing.
 
Dylan Painter
Painter played spot minutes throughout the season, the bulk of which came while Reynolds missed five games with a rib injury. Painter has legit 6-10 size and solid ball skills for a big man, but his footwork needs improvement. In a perfect world where Spellman was eligible, Painter likely would have red-shirted last season. But Wright didn't have that option given the Wildcats' thin frontcourt. Don't rule out Painter's red-shirting this coming season. If that isn't the case, he'll provide depth off the bench behind Spellman and Paschall.  
 
Incoming Freshmen
At the moment Villanova has a three-man incoming freshman class, two of which are products of the Philadelphia Catholic League -- Archbishop Wood's Collin Gillespie and Neumann Goretti's Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Jermaine Samuels of Massachusetts is the third member of this class and on the surface appears to have the highest ceiling. Samuels is an explosive wing player who will have every opportunity to crack Villanova's rotation as a freshman. This is a very solid class with pieces that fit together nicely. All three of these freshmen have the potential to grow into big-time contributors on the Big East level.

Villanova seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds look back at unforgettable run

Villanova seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds look back at unforgettable run

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Less than 48 hours after their careers ended with a crushing loss to Wisconsin in Buffalo, Villanova's three seniors stood together for the last time on the practice court at the Davis Center on campus trying to make sense of it all.

Three early NCAA exits surrounding a national championship. More wins than anybody in the country since the start of the 2013-14 season but only one trip to the Sweet 16. 

"It's difficult to accept, but that's the reality of it," Josh Hart said. "We gave it everything we could. We battled. We battled our whole careers here and gave everything we could to the program.

"We had some successful years so whenever we think about it, we'll think about those years and what we accomplished. ... We gave everything we could. A call here, a call there, a made shot here, a made shot there, but that's the luck of the draw. You've got to give Wisconsin all the credit. They're a tough, talented, very experienced team. We just ran into a good team."

It's a Villanova tradition that soon after the season ends, the players meet with the media.

Last year's interview was a continuation of the elation following the national championship.

This was different, following just two days after an excruciating loss, and Hart, Darryl Reynolds and Kris Jenkins -- Villanova's three seniors and the only players Villanova made available -- spontaneously decided to stand together and answer questions as a group.

It seemed like they just wanted one more moment together.

"The camaraderie, you can't put a price on that," Reynolds said, as Jenkins and Hart nodded in agreement. "A lot of people say this will be the last time you'll be with a group of guys who are this connected because after this point it is a complete business. More than anything, we're going to miss each other.

"We're not going to hang our heads. We had great careers here, we gave it everything we had and we walk away from it with no regrets. ...

"When you come up short, it's OK because you know you put everything you had into it."

Coach Jay Wright met with the full team Monday for the final time, and part of his message was that they have plenty to be proud of. Focus on the successes and not the failures.

"They hear the criticism from the outside, and we all understand that that comes with our position in college basketball right now and you have to accept that," Wright said.

"But we were very clear to them, that what they accomplished this season and in the regular season and the Big East Tournament and even the way they comported themselves in the NCAA Tournament, they should be proud. They should be really proud. They gave great effort, they never quit, they stuck together (and) that's all you can ask of an athlete.

"If someone were to back down in that game or someone would have got a little selfish in that game, then maybe you question something. But no one did. And no one did all season.

"It was really an incredible season, we just understand that on the outside in college basketball you get evaluated by how you advance in the NCAA Tournament. And it's OK. That's fair. But we want them to be proud of their effort this season."

In the end, this Villanova team seemed gassed. With Jenkins unable to find his shot, Mikal Bridges struggling late and Phil Booth and Omari Spellman unavailable, the Wildcats were really down to three scorers -- Hart, Jalen Brunson and reserve Donte DiVincenzo. It's a tough way to win.

Wright even spoke Monday of how last year ran right into this year and it seemed like the Wildcats never got a break.

"No complaints, I would do it all over again," he said. "But I think we could all use a break."

So they won 32 games and the Big East Tournament really with a seven-man rotation and just didn't have enough in the tank the last few minutes against a Wisconsin team that was ranked as high as No. 7 in the country a month ago, has been to two Final Fours in the last three years and goes 10 deep.

"We gave everything we could to this university and we're proud of that," Jenkins said. "We're proud of how we conducted ourselves as student-athletes representing this university.

"It didn't end the way we wanted, but we had great careers and we're proud of that."

These seniors have experienced highs and lows that most college basketball players never experience.

A year ago, they were in the middle of a historic run that ended with a trip to the White House.

Now they're back on campus, back in class, back to being regular college students.

"That's what the tournament is," Wright said. "You play for high stakes and you get great rewards when you win, so you can't avoid criticism when you lose. You've just got to take it, and no one's wrong in giving it to you.

"But you've got to look at yourself and say, 'Did we do everything we could do?' You know? And I really think the guys did and I want them to be proud of their efforts and their attitude and that's what we judge ourselves on."

Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds were a part of four teams that went a combined 129-17, the 10th-most wins ever by a Division I program in a four-year span.

Villanova's worst record with these guys in the lineup was 29-5.

They were ranked as high as No. 3 in the country all four years, won the Big East regular season four times, the Big East Tournament twice and the NCAA Tournament last year.

But then there are those three early exits. In 2014, 2015 and 2017, Villanova lost as a 1- or 2-seed to an opponent seeded seventh or lower.

"It's very tough but we gave this program everything we had since we got here and we're thankful for the opportunity we've had and the relationships that we've had here and now it's time to move on and hopefully we can do some more great things in the future," Jenkins said.

"I thought we battled and we gave it all we had. No one gave up, no one quit, we left it all out there for each other. We just fell a little short."