Villanova Wildcats

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

College basketball's Final Four is set. Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina head to Arizona this week in hopes of winning two more games for the right to call themselves national champions. 

Villanova stood tall this time last year, winning the school's second ever national championship thanks to Kris Jenkins' buzzer beater against North Carolina.
 
Despite being the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, Villanova fell considerably short of winning a second straight national title. The Wildcats' second-round loss to Wisconsin brought about an abrupt end to an otherwise successful season, one that saw them win a fourth straight Big East regular season championship and second Big East Tournament in the last three years.
 
Villanova says goodbye to the winningest senior class in school history in Jenkins, Josh Hart and Darryl Reynolds, but there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next season. Here is a breakdown of the Wildcats' projected rotation for 2017-18, one that should have Villanova ranked in the top five of most preseason polls. Players are listed in order of importance to the Wildcats' success next season.
 
Jalen Brunson
This comes with a caveat, as Brunson is still deciding whether to test the NBA draft waters following his sophomore season. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Brunson decides to go through the draft process like Hart did last year -- the NBA allows college underclassmen to work out for teams and go to the draft combine but still return to school provided they don't hire an agent. If those opportunities are available, why not take advantage of them?
 
Chances are Brunson will ultimately return to Villanova for his junior season. If he does, he'll be a strong candidate for the preseason Player of the Year in the Big East after earning first-team all-conference honors this past year. Brunson came into his own as Villanova's unquestioned floor general following the graduation of Ryan Arcidiacono, averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists. Brunson was very efficient throughout his sophomore season -- he shot 54 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 87 percent from the foul line.
 
Brunson should be one of the best players in all of college basketball next season, the type of player capable of lifting Villanova to the heights it has grown accustomed to over the past four years.    
 
Phil Booth
He played only three games this past season, but there's no disputing how important a healthy Booth will be for Villanova's fortunes next season. Booth played through left knee soreness two years ago as a sophomore and capped that season with a 20-point performance in the National Championship Game. He had arthroscopic surgery on the knee last May and by all accounts progressed nicely through the summer and fall. But the pain returned once the season started and Booth was shut down in late November. The hope at the time was he would return in a few weeks, but weeks turned into months and Booth never returned.
 
Head coach Jay Wright was optimistic last week when discussing Booth's health moving forward. Wright revealed that Booth returned to practice late in the season and said he expects his playmaking guard to be 100 percent healthy next year. Booth will likely apply for a medical redshirt and will retain his junior eligibility for the 2017-18 season.

If he's healthy (and that's understandably a big if) Booth is one of the best perimeter players in the Big East. He is an explosive scorer on the offensive end capable of playing either guard position. In Brunson and Booth, Villanova would have one of the premier 1-2 backcourt punches in the country.
 
Donte DiVincenzo
DiVincenzo picked up steam as the year progressed and will enter next season as one of the key cogs in the Villanova attack. He answered the bell in a big way on college basketball's biggest stage, averaging 18 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Wildcats' two NCAA Tournament games. DiVincenzo is an elite athlete and relentless competitor on both ends of the floor. Wright compared DiVincenzo to a young Josh Hart midway through the season, and that seems like an apt comparison.
 
Whether DiVincenzo follows Hart's career arc remains to be seen, but he'll likely enter his sophomore season penciled into Villanova's starting lineup. DiVincenzo should get the bulk of his playing time on the wing next year, but he's also comfortable bringing the ball up the floor when needed. He's earned the label of a rising star, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up a strong finish to his red-shirt freshman season.
 
Mikal Bridges
Bridges' sophomore season numbers were solid, but his production tailed off down the stretch, bottoming out in the final game against Wisconsin when he was held scoreless in 29 minutes. When he's on his game, Bridges is a dynamic player offensively and one of the top defensive players in the country. To that end, he was one of three players to share the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award last season. But Bridges' confidence appeared to dip in March, and Villanova will need him firing on all cylinders for his junior season.
 
Bridges will likely serve as a stretch four for the Wildcats next year, relying on his 39.3 three-point field goal percentage to stretch opposing defenses out to the perimeter. He'll also be asked to regularly guard bigger players in the post. In short, he'll be carrying a heavy burden on both ends of the court. How he responds will be key to the Wildcats extending their run of success into next season.
 
Omari Spellman
Villanova was able to survive Spellman's absence throughout the regular season, but it caught up with them in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats needed more size and a physical presence in the post in their season-ending loss to Wisconsin, and Spellman would have provided both. He arrived at Villanova last summer billed as a five-star recruit who was poised to contribute immediately on the frontline. But in September he was ruled academically ineligible for the season, the issue stemming from the timeline during which Spellman earned his high school credits.
 
Spellman was able to practice with the team all season, an experience that should only benefit him next season. He also transformed his body during his year on the sidelines and shed considerable weight from his high school playing days. This should all add up to Spellman's making a big time impact next year, when he should be Villanova's primary inside scoring option.
 
Eric Paschall
Because of Spellman's ineligibility, Paschall was forced to play inside far more often than originally anticipated this past season. He was a more of a wing during his freshman year at Fordham, when he won the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. Expect him to be a combination of the two next year -- still logging minutes in the post but also playing out on the perimeter more frequently. If Wright goes with a starting lineup of Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo, Bridges and Spellman, Paschall would give Villanova a versatile sixth man option off the bench.
 
Regardless of whether he's in the starting lineup, Paschall should regularly play 20-25 minutes per game. Next year will be Paschall's third in the Villanova program following his decision to transfer from Fordham. Don't be surprised to see him take a significant step forward in a role he's more accustomed to playing.
 
Dylan Painter
Painter played spot minutes throughout the season, the bulk of which came while Reynolds missed five games with a rib injury. Painter has legit 6-10 size and solid ball skills for a big man, but his footwork needs improvement. In a perfect world where Spellman was eligible, Painter likely would have red-shirted last season. But Wright didn't have that option given the Wildcats' thin frontcourt. Don't rule out Painter's red-shirting this coming season. If that isn't the case, he'll provide depth off the bench behind Spellman and Paschall.  
 
Incoming Freshmen
At the moment Villanova has a three-man incoming freshman class, two of which are products of the Philadelphia Catholic League -- Archbishop Wood's Collin Gillespie and Neumann Goretti's Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Jermaine Samuels of Massachusetts is the third member of this class and on the surface appears to have the highest ceiling. Samuels is an explosive wing player who will have every opportunity to crack Villanova's rotation as a freshman. This is a very solid class with pieces that fit together nicely. All three of these freshmen have the potential to grow into big-time contributors on the Big East level.

Villanova knows better than to overlook next opponent

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Villanova knows better than to overlook next opponent

Previewing one of Villanova's final games of the regular season:

No. 3 Villanova (25-3, 12-3 Big East) at Creighton (19-9, 8-7 Big East), Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Third-ranked Villanova is getting healthy at just the right time. Wednesday's 93-62 blowout win over DePaul marked the first game since Dec. 5 that Jay Wright had a full nine-man rotation at his disposal. Phil Booth returned for the victory over DePaul, Booth's first game since breaking his hand back on Jan. 23.

Booth didn't miss a beat, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench. He provided his typical scoring punch in addition to being a steadying presence defensively. The fact that Booth should get four regular-season games under his belt before the Big East Tournament bodes well for Villanova. I wouldn't be surprised to see Wright continue to use Booth as a sixth man in order to leave Donte DiVincenzo in the starting lineup, where he has flourished over the last month.

While Jalen Brunson remains a leading candidate for National Player of the Year honors, Mikal Bridges has transformed into the Wildcats' leading man as of late. The reigning Big East Player of the Week scored 27 points against DePaul and is averaging 23.7 points in the last three games. Given the presence of Brunson, Booth and DiVincenzo on the perimeter, opponents can't afford to double-team Bridges. And there aren't many players in the country who can guard him one-on-one. Look for Bridges to remain in attack mode with March right around the corner.

Villanova has three regular-season games remaining. If the Wildcats win all three, they would win a fifth straight Big East regular-season championship. The next hurdle comes in the form of a trip to Creighton Saturday. The Bluejays have hit a rough patch with four losses in their last six games, including a 23-point thumping at Butler on Tuesday. But Villanova is well aware of how dangerous Creighton can be playing in the raucous CenturyLink Arena in Omaha.

The Wildcats will show the proper respect for Creighton despite the Bluejays' recent struggles. Look for the Wildcats to move one step closer to another Big East championship on Saturday.

Villanova 80, Creighton 70

Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

BOX SCORE

Phil Booth returned to Villanova's lineup, and it looked as if he never left.

Booth had 14 points in his comeback from a broken right hand that sidelined him for seven games, and Mikal Bridges scored 27 points to lead No. 3 Villanova to a 93-62 victory over DePaul on Wednesday night.

Eric Paschall had 16 points, and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and seven assists to help the Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) beat DePaul for the 16th straight time.

Booth played 16 minutes, going 4 for 6 from the field and 2 for 4 from. He was injured Jan. 23 against Providence, had his cast removed Friday and practiced Tuesday.

Wildcats coach Jay Wright was pleasantly surprised at Booth's speedy recovery -- and his play.

"It's great to have him back," Wright said about Booth, who entered averaging 11.6 points. "It's a tribute to him. It looked like he never had anything wrong at practice. He looked good tonight, completely fine. It just amazes me."

Booth entered 2:53 into the contest and made his presence felt, scoring eight points in eight minutes to help the Wildcats to their 16-point halftime lead.

"It felt good to be back out there," Booth said. "A little rust but I wasn't worried about offense. My hand felt great."

Max Strus scored 21 points for the Blue Demons (10-17, 3-12).

The Wildcats had a comfortable 46-30 lead at the break. They surged to a 27-point advantage with 17:47 left in the contest by scoring 13 of the first 15 second-half points over 2:13. Bridges capped the run with a 3-pointer that made it 59-32 and practically erased any chances of a DePaul comeback.

"Our hands were down, we were late to a couple of rotations," Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao said of the Villanova spurt.

Leitao said the Wildcats have so many offensive options, and adding Booth makes it even harder to defend them.

"They are back to being whole," he said.

The game was tied at 16 after a Strus 3-pointer with 11:09 left in the half, but the Wildcats slowly and methodically pulled away.

Bridges had 15 points and Paschall added nine in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova was 10 for 14 from the free-throw line while the Blue Demons didn't attempt a foul shot. For the game, the Wildcats finished 15 for 21 from the line while DePaul was 0 for 1.

Big picture
DePaul: The Blue Demons need a victory in one of their three remaining games to reach four conference wins, which would be their most since joining the Big East.

Villanova: The four-time defending Big East champion Wildcats also have three regular-season games remaining. They are tied for first place with Xavier but own the tiebreaker with the Musketeers after beating them twice, including Saturday's 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier.

Wright stuff
Wright recorded his 411th win at Villanova to close within two victories of tying Alexander Severance for first place in all-time coaching victories. In his 17th season at Villanova, Wright improved to 17-2 against DePaul.

Series dominance
The Wildcats have won 26 of the 34 matchups, with DePaul's last win coming Jan. 3, 2008. Villanova won at DePaul 103-85 on Dec. 27 in the other contest of this season's two-game series.

Strus for 3
Strus made three 3-pointers, finishing 3 for 9, to up his single-season total to 74 and pass Quentin Richardson for second-most in a season. Drake Diener, with 85 in the 2004-05 season, tops the list.

Up next
DePaul: Host Marquette on Saturday.

Villanova: At Creighton on Saturday.