Villanova begins its national title defense with a visit from Morgan State on Tuesday. It will be the first game played at the newly-renovated Finneran Pavilion and will mark the start of the Wildcats' quest to win a third national championship in the last four years.
Jay Wright's program has established itself as college basketball's standard-bearer over the last half decade. Villanova has won 165 games over the last five years, the most wins during any five-year period in the history of the sport. It's a stretch that's seen the Wildcats win four Big East regular-season championships, three Big East Tournament titles and two national championships.
Here are the five biggest factors that will impact Villanova's chances of becoming the first program since UCLA 45 years ago to win three national titles in four years.
Booth and Paschall leading the way
Villanova expected to lose National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges to the NBA last summer. But Wright was banking on having Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman back in the fold for at least one more season. But DiVincenzo and Spellman shined during the NCAA Tournament and earned their way into the first round of the NBA draft. That left Villanova with a sizable void in both production and leadership.
Fifth-year seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall will be asked to fill the bulk of that void. Booth was a vital part of Villanova's 2016 and 2018 national championship teams. He is one of the best guards in the Big East and will lead the Wildcats' perimeter-oriented attack. Paschall blossomed into a key cog in Villanova's offense last spring, culminating with his 24-point performance against Kansas in the Final Four. Now Booth and Paschall make the transition to go-to guys. Wright believes Booth and Paschall have the potential to become two of the best leaders he's ever had.
The sophomores as X-factors
Wright says his sophomore class will be the X-factor this season. Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree each played significant minutes off the bench during last year's title run. Jermaine Samuels was in the rotation before breaking his hand at the beginning of conference play. All three will be leaned on heavily as Villanova tries to replace the quartet of Brunson, Bridges, DiVincenzo and Spellman.
Gillespie will begin the season in the starting lineup and is poised for a big sophomore year. Cosby-Roundtree will get plenty of opportunities for a team lacking interior scoring options. But the real key here is Samuels. He showed flashes last year as a freshman and has the talent to develop into the next dynamic Villanova small forward.
Are the freshmen ready?
Big East Preseason Co-Freshman of the Year Jahvon Quinerly headlines a star-studded class that also features Cole Swider, Brandon Slater and Saddiq Bey. Quinerly has the makings of becoming the next in a long line of great Villanova point guards. Swider arrives with a reputation as one of the best pure shooters Villanova has ever recruited. Slater and Bey should be in the rotation throughout the season. The question with this group has nothing to do with offense. The key will be whether it can hold its own on the defensive end.
A grueling non-conference schedule
Villanova's non-conference slate is highlighted by a national championship game rematch with Michigan, a trip to Orlando for the Advocare Invitational (with Memphis, Oklahoma State and Florida State in the field), a visit to top-ranked Kansas, and a neutral court matchup with UConn. Then there are four games against Big 5 rivals, a group that would like nothing more than to end Villanova's 22-game winning streak against city competition.
The Wildcats have grown accustomed to having a bulls-eye on their backs. That will once again be the case from the outset this season.
Can Wright work his magic?
Whether or not he wants to admit it, Wright has emerged as the new face of college basketball. His two national championships in the last three years are only part of the equation. In a time when the entire sport is under siege for unethical conduct and tactics, Wright stands apart as an example of doing things the right way. He's built a championship program marked by unparalleled success on the court, a 100 percent graduation rate and the absence of scandal.
But this season he sizes up a challenge the likes of which he hasn't faced in a long time. He'll use November, December and probably even most of January to figure out who he can trust in February and March. But don't bet against Wright figuring out a way to get the most out of this group. Whether that's enough for a third national championship in four years will play out over the next five months.
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