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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.

Villanova routs UConn behind strong defense

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Villanova routs UConn behind strong defense

BOX SCORE

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Top-ranked Villanova didn't shoot particularly well against UConn, but routed their former Big East rivals thanks to defense and rebounding.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench to lead the Wildcats to an 81-61 win, completing their non-conference schedule at 13-0.

Jalen Adams scored 19 and Christian Vital had 15 for UConn (10-9), which has now lost five games this season by at least 20 points.

The Wildcats (18-1) hit just two of their first 13 shots, but still led 13-5 early after seven offensive boards and a pair of 3-pointers by DiVincenzo.

A jumper from Adams brought the Huskies within five points at 21-16, but that would be the last time UConn threatened.

"We weren't really too worried about it," DiVincenzo said. "We were just trying to get back on the defensive end and just get stops. I think after that we missed four or five straight, but we got back to the offensive glass every time."

Villanova scored 18 of the final 20 points before intermission and the rout was on. A lob from Brunson to Eric Paschell gave the Wildcats their first double-digit lead at 26-16. They headed to halftime up 39-18 and the sellout crowd serenaded the Huskies with a chorus of boos .

Another 3-pointer from DiVincenzo gave Villanova a 70-39 lead midway through the second half , and sent many of those same fans to the exits.

"When we separated, we got it going off our defense," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "Jay (Brunson) got some steals, (Phil) Booth got some steals, kicked ahead to Jay. So, I think it was still our defensive rebounding."

Since the breakup of the old Big East, both teams have won national titles -- UConn in 2014 and Villanova in 2016. But the programs seem to be headed in opposite directions. The Wildcats are 147-18 since joining the new Big East and 50-5 since the start of the 2016-17season. UConn is 103-60 in the same span, but just 26-26 the last two seasons.

"We've just got to keep fighting," said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. "We can go down the list of what we need. I wish I had a 7-footer, 7-2 guy. I wish I had a premier, all athletes, all shooters. But at the end of the day, we got heart."

Big picture
Villanova: Villanova shot 41 percent, well below their season average of just under 52 percent. But they held the Huskies to 34 percent and outrebounded UConn 48-32, including 16-8 on the offensive end.

The Wildcats are 62-3 in regular-season non-conference games since 2013-14.

UConn: Terry Larrier, who had been averaging better than 15 points per game, took an elbow to the face this month against UCF and has been suffering headaches that caused him to miss Tuesday's loss at Memphis. He was diagnosed with a fracture to his sinus wall and wore a mask on Saturday, scoring six points in 34 minutes. Ollie said Larrier will undergo surgery this week and is expected to miss between a week and 10 days if all goes well.

All five fingers in
Brunson started the game 1 of 7 from the floor, before making eight of his last nine shots. Wright praised the All-American, for his maturity and leadership qualities, joking that he also keeps himself impeccable and "his mittens are nice and perfect." Brunson was quick to correct his coach, noting that he would never wear mittens and prefers gloves with fabric that allows him to use his phone.

But, "when it comes to basketball, I'm all in, all serious and all for the team."

Chasing history
Wright needs just 10 more wins to become Villanova's winningest coach. Alexander Severance had 413 wins between 1936 and 1961. Wright is now 404-162 with the Wildcats.

Up next
Villanova: The Wildcats return to Big East action on Tuesday, hosting Providence.

UConn. The Huskies return to campus on Thursday to host SMU.

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.