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.”

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

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How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.