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.

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

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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.