Villanova Wildcats

Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

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Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

VILLANOVA, Pa. — For a few nervous weeks following the end of the 2016-17 college basketball season, Villanova fans held their breath as they waited to see if Jalen Brunson would return to school or follow Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds out the door.

As it turned out, they had nothing to worry out.

Brunson never truly considered turning pro early because he always coveted the chance to take the leadership baton from Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds — last season’s standout senior trio — and make the Villanova program his own.

“I’ve been preparing for this moment the past couple of years,” Brunson said. “Ever since I came to Villanova, I wanted to be a leader, wanted to be a captain, wanted to be able to contribute to this culture. I’m just excited to have the opportunity.”

Considering the players they lost — Hart was one of the top players in the nation last season and Jenkins, of course, hit the famous National Championship-winning shot the season before that — the Wildcats may be hard-pressed to repeat the utter dominance of recent years. Over the last four seasons, Jay Wright’s team has amassed a combined 129-17 record.

But the Wildcats remain the favorite to win their fifth straight regular-season Big East title, and Brunson was picked as the league’s preseason player of the year.

“I never worry about anything on the outside affecting him negatively,” Wright said of the preseason accolades, which also includes the junior point guard’s inclusion on the Wooden Award watch list. “He always finds inspiration and motivation from everything that happens to him. It’s a really unique quality he has.”

Also unique is Brunson’s ability to adapt to any situation with Wright saying that the point guard's deferring to the upperclassmen during his first two seasons helped drive the team’s success but was not necessarily well-suited for him.

“Freshman year, he had a complementary role. Last year he stepped up a little bit more. But this year, it’s really obvious he’s a leader on the court and off the court,” the Villanova coach said. “It’s a very comfortable role for him. I think the last two years was probably more uncomfortable for him. He is a natural-born leader.”

Wright is also counting on Brunson to score more this year after he averaged a healthy 14.7 points per game last season. He’ll get help in that department from a loaded backcourt that also features Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth. Booth played only three games last season before sitting out with a knee injury.

“It’s really nice to have Phil back,” Wright said. “Phil is probably the most respected and well-liked player of any of the players. … I think everyone is really rooting for him and I think they’re inspired having him back.”

Wright said Booth’s ability to break down a defense and create his own shot will be a “valuable weapon.” The 'Nova coach is also excited to see Bridges, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, turn into a more complete player and see if freshman guard Collin Gillespie can turn into the next big thing.

In Friday’s season opener vs. Columbia — which, like most home games, will be played at the Wells Fargo Center while their on-campus home at the Pavilion undergoes renovations — Wright may go with a four-guard lineup that includes Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo and Gillespie with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman (see story) starting up top and Bridges and forward Eric Paschall coming in off the bench.

Either way, the Wildcats should have more depth than last season when they played only seven guys following the injury to Booth. The question is whether that will translate to the same kind of success.

“We hope our depth this year allows us to press more, play faster, not worry about guys fouling out,” Wright said. “Our depth this year will give us the chance to press more the way we want to, play faster like we want to, and lets us be more aggressive on defense and we hope be more aggressive overall.”

VILLANOVA AT A GLANCE

Head coach
Jay Wright, 17th year

Last year
• 32-4 overall, 15-3 Big East
• Won Big East regular-season and tournament championships 
• No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament (lost to Wisconsin in second round)

Top returners
• Jalen Brunson (junior guard)
• Phil Booth (redshirt junior guard)
• Donte DiVincenzo (junior guard)
• Mikal Bridges (redshirt junior guard/forward)

Key losses
• Guard Josh Hart (now with Lakers)
• Forward Kris Jenkins
• Forward Darryl Reynolds

Impact newcomers
• Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman
• Freshman Collin Gillispie

Games to watch
• Dec. 2 at Saint Joseph’s
• Dec. 5 vs. Gonzaga (New York)
• Dec. 13 at Temple
• Jan. 23 vs. Providence
• Feb. 4 vs. Seton Hall
• Feb. 24 at Creighton

Best-case scenario
Villanova enjoys playing the majority of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center, cruises to another Big East title and makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Worst-case scenario
Not having a senior hurts more than the Wildcats realize as they fall off their perch atop the Big East and once again fail to get out of the first weekend of the Big Dance.

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

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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.

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.