Villanova Wildcats

Meet Omari Spellman, the blue-chip recruit ready to star at Villanova

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Meet Omari Spellman, the blue-chip recruit ready to star at Villanova

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Of all the what ifs looking back on the 2016-17 Villanova basketball season, one stands above the rest: 

How good would the Wildcats have been if blue-chip recruit Omari Spellman hadn’t been ruled ineligible by the NCAA? What would it have been like to watch him as a freshman alongside star seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds? Could the Wildcats have even returned to the Final Four or repeated as national champs by adding another potential star to a thin rotation?

There’s no sense thinking much about that anymore, of course. Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds have since graduated, and the Wildcats will bring a much younger team into the 2017-18 campaign, which begins Nov. 10 vs. Columbia.

But just getting the opportunity to be around last year’s seniors — and everyone else on another dominant Wildcats team — still proved to be helpful for Spellman as he prepares for his first college season.

“I learned a lot from Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds about how to play hard and be a part of a culture,” Spellman said from Villanova’s media day Tuesday. “It was great to learn from those guys. I consider all three of them my older brothers. I just learned a lot how to be a great teammate from those guys and I’m thankful for having them.”

Spellman, who was ruled ineligible last September and forced to take an academic redshirt year, still practiced with the team last season and said he also “learned a lot” about defense and schemes. And although he didn’t travel, he continued his development during those road trips by working out hard with graduate assistant Henry Lowe, a former ’Nova walk-on.

Still, it wasn’t easy watching games from the stands or on TV as the Wildcats soared to their fourth straight Big East regular-season title.

“Just as a competitor, I wanted to be out there trying to help my teammates in games,” he admitted. “It killed me to let those guys go to war knowing I couldn’t do anything for them except help them prepare in practice. It was just hard. In a way, it felt like I was letting them down.

“But we moved past it and made it a positive.”

How much of a positive?

In his 17 seasons in charge, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said he’s never coached a big man with as much talent and promise as Spellman, who received offers from Arizona, Indiana, Florida and some of the other biggest programs in the nation before deciding on 'Nova.

“We haven’t had a big guy that good that early in his career,” Wright said. “Now he is not at a point where Daniel Ochefu was at the end of his career. And we might never see that here. But in the beginning of his career, he is one of the most talented young forwards that we’ve had.”

Wright has also been impressed with the work the 6-foot-9 forward did in the offseason as he slimmed down in a big way, dropping 40 pounds and really increasing his mobility and fitness.

“He’s very talented but when you’re out of shape or overweight you don’t get to show all of your talent,” the ’Nova coach said. “Being in the condition he is now is allowing him to show, for longer periods of time, his talent. He’s still young, he still does get fatigued. It’s more mental now but something I think he can improve throughout the season.”

Spellman has certainly impressed his teammates with captain Jalen Brunson saying he “brings another dimension to our team” and calling him “the full package” because he can bang down low and also hit outside shots.

And Brunson’s backcourt mate, Donte DiVincenzo, liked what he saw out of Spellman last season as he was “picking our brain” to learn more about Villanova basketball during his redshirt year.

“O is a great player,” DiVincenzo said. “He does a great job leading as well. I think that hasn’t been shown yet because he hasn’t played but he does a great job holding everyone accountable, and holding himself accountable. He holds himself to higher standards, never accepts mediocre, wants to be a great player and wants us to be a great team.”

Expectations are certainly high for Spellman, who was named the preseason Big East Rookie of the Year. And expectations, as they always are, are also high for the Wildcats, who were once again picked to win the conference. 

But Spellman, perhaps taking a lesson from last year’s seniors and the team’s current veterans, said he doesn’t pay attention to any of that. He’s similarly low-key when talking about what kind of emotions he’ll be feeling when he steps onto the court for his first college basketball game in a couple of weeks.

“I’ve never really been a guy to have a lot of jitters, so I don’t know,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never done before. It’s new. So we’ll see how it goes.”

No. 5 Villanova steamrolls Lafayette behind Mikal Bridges' career night

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No. 5 Villanova steamrolls Lafayette behind Mikal Bridges' career night

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon planned to switch defenses often in hopes of slowing down No. 5 Villanova.

It ended up not mattering what the Leopards did, not with the Wildcats shooting like this.

Mikal Bridges set a school record by hitting all six of his 3-point shots and scored a career-high 24 points in Villanova's 104-57 rout Friday night.

Jalen Brunson added 22 points and hit 4 of 6 3s in another dominant performance by the Wildcats (3-0), who made 16 of 30 from long range.

"I don't know if you shoot that way if you shoot with nobody in the gym," O'Hanlon said. "And they didn't hit the rim. They were all swishes. I don't think they knew what defense we were in."

Three nights after setting a school record with 13 blocked shots in a blowout of Nicholls, the versatile and deep Wildcats showed another strength and overwhelmed the Leopards (0-3).

Led by Bridges' 4-of-4 long-distance shooting, Villanova hit 11 of its first 14 3s in racing to a 39-16 lead. The Wildcats had a stretch of nine straight baskets being 3s en route to a 56-23 halftime lead.

"Early you start thinking, if we fall in love with that and now we're not making them, we're going to be in trouble," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But we kept making them. Then you've got a big lead and the basket looks huge."

Bridges finished 9 of 10 from the field before he sat out the final 10 minutes. The junior bested his previous career-high by one point set Tuesday.

"He's never lacked confidence, but he's always played a complementary role and he's always fine with that," Wright said. "I think he's really confident that it's his time to be a leader on this team and be a really aggressive player."

Matt Klinewski had 16 points and six rebounds for Lafayette, which was 7 of 29 from 3-point range.

While it was a Villanova home game, it was played about 50 miles from campus at the PPL Center, home of minor league hockey's Lehigh Valley Phantoms. It was a 20-mile drive for Lafayette, but the Wildcats sure seemed at home.

Villanova spent much of the second half going inside to score. Omari Spellman had 15 points and nine rebounds and Eric Paschall had 14 points and eight boards.

Bridges has made 18 of 29 shots in three games and the Wildcats have eclipsed 100 points two straight times.

"My teammates are finding me in the right spot," Bridges said. "A lot of them have wide open shots and give me an extra pass. That's what we do and that's why I'm scoring."

Big picture
Lafayette: Try as a Patriot League school squaring off against one of the best teams in the nation and watching the opponent hit 9 of their first 11 3s, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon's alma mater never had a chance.

Villanova: The Wildcats have perimeter shooting, depth inside and play good defense. They've been dominant against inferior competition, and will finally get tested next week.

So many 3-pointers
Bridges surpassed Doug West in 1988 and John Celestand in 1999, each of whom went 5 of 5 from long range. Villanova finished one shy of the school record of 17 3s set against Lehigh on Nov. 27, 2005.

No luck
O'Hanlon fell to 0-6 against his alma mater. He still holds the Villanova record for assists in a game with 16 set against Toledo on Feb. 24, 1970.

Only six Division I coaches have been at their schools longer than O'Hanlon, in his 23rd season.

Up next
Lafayette visits Princeton on Wednesday.

Villanova faces Western Kentucky on Wednesday in the first of three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. No. 19 Purdue and No. 3 Arizona are possible opponents the following two days.

No. 5 Villanova sets school record for blocks in rout of Nicholls

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No. 5 Villanova sets school record for blocks in rout of Nicholls

BOX SCORE

Mikal Bridges rejected consecutive shots by Roddy Peters in the lane, producing "oohs" from the crowd.

And No. 5 Villanova wasn't done, not even on this possession.

Omari Spellman brought the fans and bench players to their feet by swatting Tevon Saddler's follow attempt from behind, giving the Wildcats three blocks in 8 seconds and setting the tone in a record-setting 113-77 rout of Nicholls on Tuesday night.

"That's what we should be fired up about," Bridges said. "defensive things, not offensive."

Bridges set career highs with 23 points, four blocks and five steals, and Villanova (2-0) set a school record by blocking 13 shots. Spellman also had four rejections.

"We have the potential to be a very good defensive team," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. "I think you saw some of that tonight. It was more athleticism tonight than defensive technique."

Donte DiVincenzo added 20 points, Jalen Brunson had 17 and the Wildcats had six players in double figures while shooting 58 percent from the field in their second straight blowout of an inferior opponent.

"I can't imagine many teams in the country being better than them," Nicholls coach Richie Riley said. "I think they have a chance to hang another banner. I think they're that good."

Zaquavian Smith scored 25 points and Peters had 17 for the Colonels (1-1), who trailed by as many as 38 points.

Villanova, which cruised past Columbia 75-60 on Friday, raced to a 22-9 lead and was never threatened. Bridges shot 4 of 7 from 3-point range and the Wildcats were 13 of 30 from behind the arc.

That's an improvement from the 7-of-32 long-distance shooting in the opener.

"A lot of extra passes," Wright said.

The Colonels, picked to finish 10th out of 13 teams in the Southland Conference, entered as a 32-point underdog and were quickly overwhelmed in the schools' first meeting.

With just over 8 minutes remaining in the first half, Nicholls had more turnovers (7) than field goals (5).

Shortly after the three quick blocks, Villanova led 35-11.

"When you play in games like this and you're a school like us, sometimes you get out there and you really want to do well so bad that you put yourself in a tough (situation)," Riley said. "Our guys over-penetrated and over-drove the ball and they made plays at the rim."

Big picture
Nicholls: Hours after Jay Clune was appointed Nicholls' new president, the basketball team collected a check to bring back to Thibodaux, Louisiana. But Riley's transfer-dominated team needs work to end a 19-year NCAA Tournament drought.

Villanova: Plenty of highlight dunks and impressive blocks in two easy wins to start the season. The Wildcats have a lot of weapons, but have yet to be tested.

Rejected
The Wildcats' previous team record was 12 blocks, done four times and most recently against Delaware in the 2000 NIT. The individual mark is 10 blocks by Harold Pressley against Providence on Jan. 11, 1986.

Defense MIA
Nicholls ranked 335th out of 351 teams last season by allowing 82.1 points a game. And while they won their opener 111-106 over Texas-Rio Grande Valley, they couldn't outshoot Villanova.

The Wildcats scored at will for much of the night, getting good looks inside and open 3s from the perimeter. The Colonels tried to push the pace, but they finished with 17 turnovers and drives to the rim often ended with a blocked shot.

Up next
Nicholls has its home opener Friday against Division II Spring Hill (Ala.).

Villanova faces Lafayette in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Friday before traveling to the Bahamas for three games in the Battle for Atlantis next week. The Wildcats could play No. 19 Purdue and No. 3 Arizona in the last two rounds.