Omari Spellman

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.

Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

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Villanova 'can't hear anything' in wild win inside loud Jake Nevin Field House

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Jay Wright has his team’s routine down pat before games at the Pavilion or the Wells Fargo Center.

But ahead of Wednesday’s game at Jake Nevin Field House, the Villanova head coach realized he had forgotten something.

“We didn’t have a pregame meal,” he said. “We’re so used to doing it the way we do it, we missed out on setting it up. We all walked to the cafeteria and ate in the cafeteria with other students."

Wright paused and smiled, an interesting realization setting in.

“That’s probably what everybody always did," he said.

Call it another nostalgic touch in a game filled with them.

Inspired by the ghosts of Villanova past, the Wildcats put on a memorable performance in the program’s first game at Jake Nevin Field House since 1986, rolling to a 90-62 win over Penn (see observations).

But it was only after the final horn sounded and they walked off the court at the old “Cat House” that they could enjoy it. During the game, they couldn’t really do much in the way of talking with each other.

“Wild atmosphere,” Wright said. “It’s a difficult place to play for everybody, including the home team. You can’t hear anything. We legitimately had trouble communicating defensively. … I can’t imagine what that place used to be like when they had more seats in here.”

On Wednesday, there were only about 2,000 fans in the building — Villanova’s home court from 1931 until the Pavilion, now undergoing renovations, was built in 1986 — but almost all of them were students who were standing the whole game, singing in unison during breaks in the action, and erupting after every Villanova bucket.

“It was honestly awesome,” said point guard Jalen Brunson, who led Villanova with 17 points. “It was definitely a great experience. Like Coach said, it was hard to hear sometimes. I tried reading lips. I couldn’t really hear him.”

Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman had similar issues with the noise, saying he had to ask teammate Mikal Bridges “the same question 50 times.” Some of that, of course, was his own doing as his thunderous dunk midway through the first half brought down the house and set the tone as ’Nova began to pull away.

What was he thinking about on that play, as he stole the ball at midcourt and streaked toward the basket?

“Oh, I double-dribbled,” he said. “The ref didn’t call it. I definitely double-dribbled.”

That was one of a few tough breaks for the Quakers, who actually played a decent first half but still went into halftime down 18 points. The game was never close again, although Penn head coach Steve Donahue didn’t point to the atmosphere as a reason for the lopsided defeat.

“It’s not that different, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “It’s very comparable to probably 150 programs in America who play in a similar facility.”

Donahue gave much more credit to the Villanova players, who never took their foot off the gas en route to their 19th straight Big 5 victory.

“Sometimes you watch them on film and you’re slightly underwhelmed because they don’t have crazy talent,” said Donahue, who coached in the ACC with Boston College for four years. “On tape, Villanova doesn’t jump out like other teams. But what’s apparent when you play them is I’ve never coached against a team that’s smarter and tougher and more selfless.”

Wright, who can be critical of his team, admitted his team played really well and that if it didn’t, an improved Penn squad might have been able to keep it close. 

But even though he’s pleased by it, he’s equally baffled by how well the Wildcats have been able to consistently throttle Big 5 opponents over the last five seasons.

“We live here,” he said. “We watch these teams. … We play against each other in the summers. Penn will come to our place in the summer and we’ll go down to Penn. We have great respect for them. We’ll play five games and sometimes Penn will win three out of five.”

He added he doesn’t like to think about the Big 5 streak, which could hit 20 if they can beat archrival St. Joe’s at Hagan Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats then face La Salle at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 10 before perhaps their toughest Big 5 game of the season — at Temple on Dec. 13.

Without the benefit of playing any games at the Pavilion, could their city streak end this season?

“I think you’re gonna see three other great games against Villanova,” Donahue said. “I do feel like we want to end that streak. There’s no doubt. 

“I do think Villanova has it going but that being said, I think those three programs could beat them this year because it’s the Big 5 and the kids know each other.”

No. 4 Villanova-Penn observations: Wildcats put on show at the old 'Cat House'

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No. 4 Villanova-Penn observations: Wildcats put on show at the old 'Cat House'

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. — The venue was different but the result the same.

In the first Big 5 game ever played at Jake Nevin Field House, No. 4 Villanova cruised to a 90-62 victory over visiting Penn (5-4) on Wednesday. 

With the win, the Wildcats (7-0) upped their record Big 5 winning streak to 19 games heading into another city matchup at Saint Joseph’s on Saturday. 

• It was a unique atmosphere at Jake Nevin Field House, which hadn’t hosted a Villanova men’s game since 1986, a month before the Pavilion opened next door. But with the 2,200-seat gym best known as the “Cat House” filled with just about all Villanova students, it got loud. Very loud (see story).

• The biggest cheers in the building, which opened in 1931, came early when Omari Spellman had a steal and coasted in for a thunderous one-handed dunk, moments after burying a three-pointer. The Villanova redshirt freshman was up for the game, scoring 10 points before the first media timeout.

• The rims may not be what they’re used to but the Wildcats could barely miss, shooting 50 percent from three-point range and 56.9 percent from the field. One of those threes came from freshman Jermaine Samuels — just his second of the season.

• ’Nova captain Jalen Brunson took over in the second half, as he’s prone to do. He finished with a game-high 17 points and missed only one shot. And showing his leadership, he charged way off the bench to cheer a teammate drawing a charge in the final two minutes.

• Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Spellman also had big games with all three finishing with 14 points. Donte DiVincenzo joined them in double figures with 12.

• The visiting Quakers actually seemed up for the unique matchup, too, with standout sophomores AJ Brodeur (15 points) and Ryan Betley (11 points) putting Penn up 11-9 early. But it looked like some nerves caught up with them with a couple of players shooting airballs and getting rattled.

• As Brodeur and Betley go, so go the Quakers. Brodeur was productive inside but Betley, a native of nearby Downingtown, had an off night shooting until getting hotter late when the game was already out of reach.

• Eric Paschall also had a huge first-half dunk for Villanova — while getting fouled. And Bridges added a couple of his own in the second half, the second of which gave the Wildcats a commanding 74-47 edge with 8:38 remaining.

• Penn took a lot of threes as it usually does but connected on just one of its 10 first-half attempts. For the game, the Quakers shot 6 for 20 from behind the arc.

• Darnell Foreman scored 13 points for Penn and Jackson Donahue, who’s been in and out of the rotation, had a good night off the bench, hitting a couple of threes in the second half and making a couple of nice passes on backdoor cuts. He also endured some taunts from a few Villanova students who liked to call out “Jackson.”  

• Villanova, which held a comfortable 46-28 halftime lead, has beaten Penn in each of the last 15 seasons.

• Legendary Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who died in August, was honored at halftime with his retired jersey presented to family. About 40 of his former players were in attendance at the old field house he used to call home. 

• The best spotted T-shirt in the crowd: “All Wright All Wright All Wright.”

• After playing Saint Joseph’s, Villanova meets Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden before closing out its Big 5 slate vs. La Salle on Dec. 10 and Temple on Dec. 13. The Wildcats are aiming for their fifth straight perfect Big 5 record.

• The Quakers, who lost an overtime heartbreaker to La Salle earlier in the season, face Temple and St. Joe’s in consecutive weeks in January.