Villanova Wildcats

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

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AP Images

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 still sitting pretty in the AP poll

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USA Today Images

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

Villanova is getting pretty accustomed to this whole No. 1 thing.

For the fifth time in the last six weeks, head coach Jay Wright's Wildcats are No. 1 in the AP poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes this time around. This week's spot on college basketball's top perch came after a successful week that saw the 'Cats smother then-No.10 Xavier, 89-65, on Wednesday evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The Musketeers fell to No. 11 after the defeat. Villanova followed that up by holding off a feisty St. John's squad, 78-71, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Wildcats sport this No. 1 ranking heading into their own rivalry week this week. They head to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to battle historic Big East rival Georgetown, led by first-year head coach and Hoya great Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas are 12-5 on the season, but just 2-4 in conference play. They most recently fell to No. 19 Seton Hall this past Saturday. After that, it's on to Connecticut for an old-school Big East matchup with the Huskies. The teams last met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a game UConn won on its way to the national championship. Villanova, though, holds a 33-31 all-time advantage.

As for the rest of this week's top five, Virginia moved up a spot to No. 2, Purdue jumped up to No. 3, Oklahoma shot up five spots to No. 4. and Duke crept up to No. 5.

Click here to view this week's top 25 poll in its entirety.

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

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AP Images

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John's 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.

Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets -- going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders -- over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John's within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of "Let's Go Nova!" were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.

Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.

Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn't let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John's seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.

Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.

Ponds was a one-man band for St. John's. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.

Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova's last eight attempts.

St. John's hit one 3 the entire game -- one! -- and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John's hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.

Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.

The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they're again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.

BIG PICTURE
St. John's: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there's little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John's hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John's beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.

Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.

UP NEXT
Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.

The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.