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.

No. 5 Villanova tops Western Kentucky, advances in Battle 4 Atlantis

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USA Today Images

No. 5 Villanova tops Western Kentucky, advances in Battle 4 Atlantis

BOX SCORE

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky's controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday's opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That's when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

"They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they've got three days here," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "They controlled the tempo. ... Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half."

Villanova didn't get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

"They find ways to have spurts and make runs," Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. "And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers."

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

"I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted," Thompson said. "Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times."

Big picture
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

"I'm really proud of our team's effort," Stansbury said, "but I think it's the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I'm most disappointed with."

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn't find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

"We still have to get a lot better," Brunson said. "We're still a work in progress."

Bridges’ roll
Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

Bench spark
Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

"He's really an unselfish guy," Wright said. "We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he's a guy that just said, `I don't care, I'll do whatever you need me to do.'

"And he comes in off the bench and he's incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half."

Up next
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday's consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.

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

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AP Images

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

BOX SCORE

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.