Mikal Bridges

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks destined for deep tournament run again

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova looks destined for deep tournament run again

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.

La Salle (5-5) at No. 4 Villanova (9-0), Sunday, 1 p.m.
SK:
Villanova returns to the Wells Fargo Center following its most impressive win of the young season — an 88-72 thumping of No. 12 Gonzaga on Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. The fourth-ranked Wildcats controlled the game for the full 40 minutes and put the college basketball world on notice that they are once again legitimate national championship contenders. 

Junior forward Mikal Bridges stole the show against Gonzaga, scoring a career-high 28 points on 8 of 14 shooting from the field. Bridges punctuated the win with an incredible sequence midway through the second half — soaring for a one-handed slam over three defenders then hustling back to get a big block on the other end. Through nine games, Bridges has established himself as an All-American candidate and potential lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft (see story)

As impressive as Bridges was on Tuesday, it was the play of junior guard Phil Booth that should be most encouraging for Villanova fans. Booth scored 20 points on 9 of 14 shooting and is averaging 17 points in his last three games. After missing all but three games last season due to a knee injury, it's become apparent that Booth is now 100 percent healthy and back to being his old explosive self that was previously seen scoring a team-high 20 points in the 2016 National Championship game. Having Booth playing at this level is huge for Villanova as they gear up for the Big East portion of their schedule.

Villanova now turns its attention to La Salle on Sunday afternoon, aiming for a 21st straight Big 5 win. La Salle played the Wildcats tough last season, losing 89-79 at the Palestra in a game that was decided in the final minutes. 

But the Explorers are sputtering a bit coming into Sunday's matchup. After beating Temple two weeks ago to improve to 4-3, they've dropped two of their last three including Thursday's 72-70 home loss to Drexel. La Salle trailed by 13 at halftime before rallying in the second half only to lose in the last few seconds. 

Senior guard B.J. Johnson scored 21 points in the loss — a shade under his season average of 21.5. But Johnson is going to need a whole lot more help than he's been getting if the Explorers are going to hang with a Villanova team that is operating on a championship-caliber level on both ends of the floor.

Look for Villanova's defensive intensity to eventually wear La Salle down, and for Wildcats junior guard Jalen Brunson to bounce back for a big game after being plagued by foul trouble against Gonzaga.

Villanova 82, La Salle 63  

Saint Joseph's (4-4) at Temple (5-2), Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
AF: 
It's always fun when the Big 5 teams get together. There is so much familiarity and ire between the two fanbases and each team's players feed off the energy. And this weekend's contest between the Owls and the Hawks is certainly no different.

It's been an up and down season for both so far, but the Owls have more ups than downs at this point. If anything, it's harder to figure out this Temple team than in years past. However, a win over Wisconsin just this week has me thinking that Temple is just a team still trying to get its legs under them. Either that, or they just play really, really well against football schools. I mean, look at their schedule: wins over Clemson, Auburn and now the Badgers. That would put the Owls in the FBS Playoffs. 

Fran Dunphy's squad is starting to come together nicely and a lot of that can be attributed to the strong guard play of Shizz Alston, Jr. and Josh Brown. The two are combining to score 34 points a game. In the win over Wisconsin, Alston was steady on the court and most importantly at the free throw line. He now holds the school record for most consecutive free throws made with 52 and counting, which goes back to December of last year.

Meanwhile, on City Line Avenue, the Hawks are licking their wounds after suffering their worst loss in the rivalry with Villanova, a 41-point thorough thrashing nearly a week ago. But have heart Saint Joseph's fans, this is a fantastic, potential Final Four, veteran Villanova team. So just put that in your rear view and look ahead to the rest of the Big 5 slate and the Atlantic-10 conference schedule.

As I mentioned, it's been an up and down year for St. Joe's and you can draw a direct correlation to the Hawks' struggles by looking at an injury report. For the first eight games, they've been without Charlie Brown and you can't understate his loss. Brown is an NBA prospect. And Phil Martelli would love to go with his plan A of running the plays through him. But he's doubtful for this game as well after undergoing surgery on a fractured left wrist at the end of October.

So it's been on to plan B and maybe even plan C at this point for Martelli, thanks to the loss of Lamarr Kimble at the beginning of the season. But the Hawks do have the services of James Demery and Shavar Newkirk. The two seniors are neck and neck as the Hawks leading scorers at 16.8 and 16.5 points per game, respectively.

A bright spot for the Hawks is Taylor Funk, who's averaging three made three-pointers per game, and when you have that scoring threat from the outside, it can open up the inside lanes and the post to collect points.

I do want to point out one thing: Martelli and Dunphy are great friends. They have so much respect for one another, and together with their wives, are single-handedly responsible for the most successful Coaches vs. Cancer chapter in the country. The Philadelphia chapter has raised more than 14 million dollars since 1996 and that number grows every year.

But as for this one, well for the second straight game, I think it will be a Big 5 loss for the Hawks.

Temple 75, Saint Joseph's 68

Pennsylvania (7-4) at Dayton (4-4), Saturday, 3 p.m.
SK:
Penn ventures into what is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball for a matchup with Dayton on Saturday afternoon. The Quakers have momentum on their side, winning four of their last five with the only blemish during that stretch coming at Villanova.

Penn hung on for a 73-68 win at Lafayette on Wednesday. Sophomores A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley combined for 31 points as the Quakers improved their season record to 7-4. 

Saturday's visit to Dayton will offer a tough test for Penn but it's certainly a winnable game. The Flyers are in a transition season under first-year head coach Anthony Grant, who took over for Archie Miller after Miller left for Indiana following last season. Dayton has a 4-4 record, with those four wins coming against Ball State, Ohio, Akron and Tennessee Tech. 

I expect Penn to not only compete with Dayton but have a chance to win the game in the last handful of possessions. But I just can't get over the raucous homecourt advantage that UD Arena provides. I expect that to be the deciding factor in what should be a hard-fought, entertaining game on Saturday.

Dayton 70, Pennsylvania 68

Drexel (5-4) at Robert Morris (5-4) Sunday, 2 p.m.
AF:
Okay, I'll admit it. I cannot for the life of me figure this Drexel team out. And yes, as my co-author will tell you, my prediction record reflects that. I pick them to lose to Houston and they beat them by four. I pick Drexel to win over NJIT and they lose by a dozen. So it's no surprise that when I picked Rider to beat the Dragons that of course they won, and did so handily.

Maybe I should pull a George Costanza and just do the opposite of what my brain tells me. But I don't know if I can do it this time. Drexel looked pretty good last time out when they took down La Salle at the Gola on Thursday night. Yes, Kurk Lee came to play yet again with 23 points. But it was the second straight game where Sammy Mojica has shined. The senior is really finding his rhythm. He posted 19 in the win over the Explorers. And in the win last week against Rider, he poured in 22. That can mean only positive things for Zach Spiker's team. 

This weekend, the Dragons travel across the Commonwealth to face Robert Morris. Robert Morris. It's a team that draws up bad feelings in my stomach. The Colonials beat Kentucky (without Nerlens Noel, mind you) in the first round of the NIT And yes, you read that correctly. It was in the NIT But that was several years ago. So I won't let that color my judgment in predicting the winner of this one. But Drexel wins.

As much as I'd love to pick the Dragons just because of the 2013 NIT loss, I can actually use a common opponent as my reasoning. Robert Morris just beat Rider by three points Wednesday night. The same Rider team that Drexel beat by 12. So I'll go with that.

Drexel 75, Robert Morris 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
 6-3
Amy Fadool: 3-7

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.

No. 4 Villanova dismantles No. 12 Gonzaga in Jimmy V Classic

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USA Today Images

No. 4 Villanova dismantles No. 12 Gonzaga in Jimmy V Classic

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Mikal Bridges hit Gonzaga with a dunk that rocked the Garden and followed with a block that sapped the Zags' spirit.

Against an NCAA title game finalist and in prime time on basketball's biggest stage, Bridges had his coming out performance as one of the top players in the nation.

Just check the replay of that sequence for confirmation.

"I just saw a lane and tried to go up and be strong," Bridges said.

Bridges hit five 3s and scored a career-high 28 points to lead No. 4 Villanova to an 88-72 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

The Wildcats (9-0) flexed their muscle on familiar turf and proved again they are again national championship contenders in their first real test of the season.

Bridges, a 6-foot-7 junior guard, put on a show in front of scores of NBA scouts and flashed a lottery-pick worthy game. His defining moment came in the second half: Bridges slashed the lane and unleashed a monster right-handed dunk over 6-11 center Jacob Larsen. Gonzaga's Josh Perkins tried the same move on the next set only to have Bridges swat the ball out of bounds with a block that had the Nova fans that filled MSG roaring on each replay.

"Ever since my freshman year, I've laid the ball up a lot and coaches, the seniors, they used to get on me for that," Bridges said.

Not anymore.

Bridges made 8 of 14 shots in the first meeting between two programs that have ranked among the best over the last 15 years. Villanova won the 2016 national championship and the Zags lost the 2017 title game to North Carolina.

Bridges was such a dominant presence, he even startled one Zag into a turnover when he heard footsteps on a fastbreak.

"He probably could have done more of this last year," coach Jay Wright said. "He's the leader. He's the captain. So he's playing with a lot more freedom. Aggressiveness, as he says."

Zach Norvell Jr. led Gonzaga (7-2) with 22 points and Perkins had 16.

"They put it on us pretty good," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Bridges cut off the Bulldogs each time they made a small run. The Zags inched to seven early in the second half and Bridges connected on a 3. He came up with a tough bucket inside and drew a foul on one possession and followed with a 3 on the next to make it a 10-game game.

Bridges dunk-and-block in front of the scouts destroyed whatever mojo Gonzaga had left and the Wildcats won for an NCAA-best 109th time since 2014.

"We don't care who's out in the crowd. We play for each other," Bridges said

The Wildcats played every bit like a national championship favorite in a first half where they picked apart the Zags. Bridges had 12 points, Phil Booth had 11 of his 20 points and the Wildcats hit six 3s to build a 43-30 lead.

Villanova is more than a few NBA-ready scorers carrying the offense. Eric Paschall missed both of his shots in the half but it was his kickout passes on consecutive possessions that led to 3s from Booth and Bridges. Donte DiVincenzo made it three straight 3s that brought the Nova fans to their feet.

Booth, who took a medical redshirt last season, proved his twice surgically repaired left knee was fine on a high-flying dunk and even the players got loud at the Garden: Villanova's deep reserves bolted from the bench and bellowed "Charge! Charge! Charge!" late in the half and sure enough the foul was called on Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura.

The Wildcats made the short 105-mile trip compared to nearly 2,600 miles for the Zags and had the decided fan support at MSG. The Wildcats, a regular at the Garden in the Big East Tournament, could hoist that trophy in front of the faithful again in March in New York.

Big picture
Gonzaga: The Bulldogs lost their second game after losing just one in the regular season on the way to the title game. The Bulldogs were picked this year to finish second in the WCC, behind archrival Saint Mary's.

Villanova: The Wildcats followed a school-record 19 3s in their last game against Saint Joseph's with 10 against Gonzaga. What's it going to take to lose? "Us relaxing," Bridges said.

D-Zag-ster
The Wildcats shot 52 percent from the field and became the first team in 65 games to shoot better than 50 percent against the Zags. Gonzaga starters Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson fouled out.

Up next
Gonzaga: The Zags play against Pac 12 Washington on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats look to extend their dominance in Philadelphia's city series Sunday against La Salle.