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
Jay Wright, 17th 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)
• Jalen Brunson (junior guard)
• Phil Booth (redshirt junior guard)
• Donte DiVincenzo (junior guard)
• Mikal Bridges (redshirt junior guard/forward)
• Guard Josh Hart (now with Lakers)
• Forward Kris Jenkins
• Forward Darryl Reynolds
• 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
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.
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.