Villanova Wildcats

Villanova puts fresh faces on display in season-opening win over Columbia

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Villanova puts fresh faces on display in season-opening win over Columbia

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Villanova head coach Jay Wright used the word “interesting” a few times during his postgame press conference following the No. 6 Wildcats’ season-opening 75-60 win over Columbia on Friday (see observations).

All of their home games will be interesting, he said, now that the Pavilion is undergoing renovations and they have to change their routine to play at the Wells Fargo Center, as they did Friday night. 

And the makeup of the team? Well, that’s interesting, too, as four freshmen have found their way into the regular rotation: Omari Spellman, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels.

Against Columbia, the new quartet combined to play 58 minutes with Spellman and Gillespie, especially, showing a lot of promise.

“Some of our young guys are getting their first taste,” Wright said. “That’s what we’re gonna have to do this year.”

This is somewhat of a new situation for Wright, whose teams don’t rely on one-and-done players like other nationally renowned programs. Freshmen certainly get the chance to start right away, as Jalen Brunson, now a junior leader, did two years ago on the Wildcats’ national championship team. But Villanova has never been quite this reliant on young players in Wright’s tenure.

“We’ve gotta get young guys experience,” the ’Nova coach said. “It might look bad early. It might hurt early. But we have the potential in the end to be a good team.

Nobody on ’Nova is more highly touted than Spellman, who got the start down low and finished with a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) in his first collegiate game. 

Spellman has more experience than the other three freshmen since he’s a redshirt freshman who was academically ineligible last season. But he displayed the same kind of early jitters, making some mistakes before getting calming pep talks from Brunson and Eric Paschall.  

“I like that he rebounded the ball,” Wright said. “For a big guy, that’s the most difficult offense to guard and he did it in his first game. … Decision-making, communicating defensively, all those things, he’ll get better. He’s just gotta play. He hasn’t played a game in two years.”

Gillespie’s college career also got off to an inauspicious start as he airballed his first shot. But Brunson watched the freshman guard closely after that play and was impressed that he couldn’t detect a negative reaction.

He was even more impressed when Gillespie drained his next two three-pointers.

“His confidence is off the charts,” Brunson said. “You don’t see a change in his demeanor or anything. Not just Collin but all the young guys. We’re gonna get on them. As leaders, we have to step up and show them how to play Villanova basketball. And it starts with me.”

Brunson, a first-team preseason All-American, certainly showed a lot of leadership abilities on Friday, and took matters into his own hands when needed, too. He finished with 14 points, second on the team to Paschall’s 15. 

Wright is counting on big things from the two, along with fellow upperclassmen Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges (who scored eight points apiece), as well as sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench to score 13 points but who Wright said will get “starter minutes” throughout the season.

“Having Jalen and the other experienced guys is really [big]. If you’re just depending on the young guys, we’d be in trouble,” Wright said. “They will make those guys better. They do a great job leading those guys.”

Villanova fans didn’t see as much out of Samuels or Cosby-Roundtree, who were both held off the scoring column. But Wright said Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Philly’s Neumann Goretti, has a chance to be a “really special player in our program.” 

And he was pleased he didn’t really make any mistakes and that the rest of the freshmen showed poise, great passing ability and basketball smarts in a challenging first game against a disciplined opponent.

“It’s not that easy for guys to play for us right away,” Wright said. “But they’re picking things up. It was really good tonight.

“They’re excited, they’re freshmen. They’re going to get a lot better.”

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.

How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

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How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

Mikal Bridges put his own personal stamp on Villanova's most impressive win of the young season Tuesday night. That stamp came in the form of a soaring, one-handed jam over a trio of Gonzaga defenders, accounting for two of his career-high 28 points in the fourth-ranked Wildcats' easier than expected 16-point win at Madison Square Garden.

Bridges' comments after the game were as impressive as that dunk and his overall performance, best illustrating how far he's come in four years at Villanova. Bridges was asked by the Big East Digital Network about his leadership style.

"I'm trying to lead by doing all the little things," Bridges said. "Let the young guys watch me do all the little things and they know if our captain, our leader is doing that, then they're going to do the same thing."   

If you closed your eyes and listened to those words, you could have sworn they were coming from Josh Hart last year. Or Ryan Arcidiacono the year before that, or Darrun Hilliard three years ago. Bridges spent the early portion of his college career watching and learning from all of those star players. It enabled him to transition seamlessly into a leadership role once it became his turn to lead. That cycle is the biggest reason for Villanova's unprecedented run of success the past five seasons. 

No player embodies "Villanova Basketball" more so than Bridges. His story is unique in this age of one-and-done college basketball stars. He has taken the road less traveled to becoming one of the best players in the country and standing on the brink of NBA stardom. 

Patience pays off
Bridges arrived at Villanova in the Fall of 2014 as a Top 100 recruit but nowhere near a finished product. While he dominated at the high school level at nearby Great Valley, it became apparent rather quickly that he needed to bulk up his wiry frame to compete at the Big East level. 

Jay Wright presented the possibility of red-shirting to Bridges — the idea being to spend a year practicing with the team but more importantly getting stronger in the weight room. It was a reasonable suggestion albeit one that was hard for Bridges to accept. He had been a star his whole basketball career and the thought of not playing a game for 12 months must have seemed like an eternity.    

Bridges made the difficult decision to sit out for a year. It was the right move. He's gone from red-shirting in 2015 to being the sixth man for a national championship team in 2016 to the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and now an All-American candidate as a junior who could end up being a lottery pick in six months. 

There's been a lot of attention given to the fact that five of Villanova's top six players red-shirted at some point during their careers. In actuality, only Bridges made the decision to do so without being forced into it either by injury or NCAA guidelines. Phil Booth was sidelined by a knee injury last year. Donte DiVincenzo broke his foot early in his freshman season. Eric Paschall had to sit out a year after transferring from Fordham. Omari Spellman was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA last season. 

But Bridges didn't have to red-shirt. He thought it would be best for his growth and development. As the rest of the college basketball world is currently finding out, he was right.

Draft stock soaring
Bridges was already popping up in 2018 mock drafts prior to the start of the season. His long, lanky body type and high-end athleticism are tailor-made for the NBA, enabling him to be disruptive on the defensive end and explosive offensively.  

Bridges proved himself an efficient shooter last year, knocking down 55 percent of his field goal attempts, 39 percent of his threes and 91 percent of his foul shots. But he was often the fourth option on a team featuring Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson. Factor in a dip in production in March and there were serious questions concerning Bridges heading into his junior season. Namely, how would he respond being a focal point of the Villanova offense? And could he find that level of consistency that often alluded him?

Less than a month into the season, those questions have been answered. Through nine games, he's averaging 19.0 points in addition to 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. He's shooting 57 percent from the field and a ridiculous 51 percent from three-point range. Bridges was at his best when the lights were brightest — those career-high 28 points against Gonzaga came in front of dozens of NBA scouts at Madison Square Garden. 

As a result, Bridges has ensured he will be a first-round pick should he decide to leave Villanova next spring. With more performances like the one he delivered against Gonzaga, the lottery seems like a more and more realistic destination. 

Bridges is poised to join Hart as the only first-round picks from Villanova in the last 12 years. He could join perennial All-Star Kyle Lowry as the only Villanova players in the Jay Wright Era who left school early and became first-round picks. But for the next four months, Bridges will be focused on bringing another Big East championship and potentially another national title to Villanova. As he's shown throughout the course of his career, he's not one to get ahead of himself.