5 biggest factors for Villanova in its title defense

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5 biggest factors for Villanova in its title defense

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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Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

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Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

BOX SCORE

Even as Villanova remains atop the national rankings and barrels toward its fifth straight Big East regular-season championship, a dark cloud of sorts has been hovering above the Wildcats for the last week.

Can the No. 1 Wildcats keep winning without Phil Booth, who was sidelined last Wednesday with a fractured bone in his right hand? How nervous should Villanova fans be about Booth’s status heading into March as the star senior guard has been ruled out “indefinitely” but could return toward the end of the regular season or the Big East Tournament?

Enter Collin Gillespie, who’s trying to make ‘Nova Nation breathe a little easier.

On Thursday against Creighton — Villanova’s second game with Booth sidelined — the freshman guard had eight points and five assists in 23 minutes to help the Wildcats cruise to a 98-78 shellacking of the Bluejays at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

“He brought the energy,” said junior Mikal Bridges, who led all scorers with 21 points. “I told him during the game, in the first half, we were playing off him. He’s the one who came in here and brought all that energy. He played his tail off today. We’re gonna need him for the rest of the season.”

Gillespie, a high school star at nearby Archbishop Wood, had showed flashes of potential early in his freshman campaign before a hand injury of his own sidelined him in mid-December. After missing eight straight games, he returned a little more than a month later but scored only eight total points over the last four contests before Thursday’s timely performance.

“Against a team like [Creighton], you need more perimeter guys than you need big guys,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “So his play tonight was going to be really important going into the game, and I thought when he came in in the first half, he really sparked us.”

While Gillespie’s final stat line may not jump out at you, Wright mentioned the freshman doing little things like taking a charge, effectively distributing the ball and, yes, bringing a lot of energy.

That’s something Gillespie has prided himself on throughout the season, whether it was earlier in the campaign when he was a deeper reserve or now that he’s the first guy off the bench with former sixth man Donte DiVincenzo having taken Booth’s place in the starting lineup.

“I think it’s the same as when I was the seventh or eighth man; just coming in and bringing energy for the team,” Wright said. “Now that Donte is in the starting lineup, it doesn’t really change. I have to keep bringing energy and doing the little things for the team to be successful.” 

Indeed, Gillespie may very well blossom into a Villanova star down the road. But for now, even with Booth injured, he knows his job is to be a role player and help set up Jalen Brunson, Bridges and DiVincenzo for success.

Against the Bluejays, the trio of starting guards accounted for 57 points and 13 assists with Brunson in particular drawing enormous praise from the opposing side — as he usually does.

“I’m not in the NBA but if I was, I would want that guy on my team,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “He impacts the game in so many ways. If you need him to score, he’ll score. If you need him to distribute, he distributes. He’s got toughness. He’s got moxie. His leadership skills appear to be off the charts. That offense, with the ball in his hands, is really hard to guard.”

Albeit in more modest terms, McDermott also praised Gillespie and fellow freshman reserve Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 forward from Philly.

“Both of those guys come in and just do your job,” the Creighton coach said. “On Jay’s teams, that is, in my opinion, their trademark. They have a lot of guys who have a role and they really execute that role at a high level.” 

Like Gillespie, Cosby-Roundtree has also seen his role elevated because of Booth’s injury, becoming the seventh man in what’s been a tight seven-man rotation. And he too responded in a big way, registering six points and six rebounds, three of which were on the offensive end of the floor.

“The next guy who sparked us was Dhamir,” Wright said. “He had a big offensive rebound early when it was tight, got us an extra possession. Defensively, his ability to guard on the perimeter is becoming an asset for us. He’s really come on and gets better every game. I’m really proud of him.”

Time will tell, of course, when Booth is able to return as ’Nova prepares to make a run at the Final Four and a national championship. But even when he does, the two freshmen — along with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman, who finished with 14 points against Creighton — will almost certainly continue to be important factors.

And for Gillespie, he couldn’t ask for anything more in his first season of college basketball.

“It’s really special,” the Warminster native said. “Being so close to home, my family gets to see me. Just playing for this program is special. It’s been a lot of fun. And it’s just trying to build every day, get better every day.”

City 6 Notes: Villanova signs pair to national letters of intent

City 6 Notes: Villanova signs pair to national letters of intent

Before the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Villanova coach Jay Wright has already penned his first two recruits for the 2017-18 season.

On Wednesday, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree both signed their national letters of intent to play with the Wildcats next year .

Samuels is a 6-6 small forward from Rivers School in Weston, Mass. He is ranked a Top 50 recruit by ESPN.com, Scout.com and Rivals.com. Samuels announced his verbal commitment to Villanova in August. Other schools recruiting him included Duke, Georgetown, Kansas and Indiana.

He played for the AAU team Expression Elite this summer, when he averaged 13.4 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game.

“Jermaine is an explosive athlete who can play multiple positions and is a gritty competitor for his coaches, Keith Zalaski of the Rivers School and Todd Quarles with Expression Elite,” Wright said in a statement. 

Cosby-Roundtree plays his high school hoops in Philly. He helped lead Neumann-Goretti High School to a PIAA Class AAA state championship last year. He’s ranked a four-star recruit by ESPN.com and Scout.com and is ranked the No. 85 recruit in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.com.

He verbally committed to Villanova in April, choosing the Wildcats over schools like Temple, Seton Hall, Syracuse and Providence.

“Dhamir is a winner who has been a part of numerous city and state championship teams playing for Carl Arrigale at Neumann Goretti High School,” Wright said. “We have also seen him excel for Team Final and Coach Rob Brown on the EYBL circuit. This is a talented young man on the court and in the classroom who will be a major contributor to our program.”

Temple names three captains
Temple head coach Fran Dunphy named redshirt senior guard/forward Daniel Dingle, senior guard Josh Brown and senior forward Mark Williams as the Owls' captains for the 2016-17 season on Tuesday.

Brown’s status to start the season is uncertain after he injured his Achilles tendon in May. He was the team’s starting point guard last season and ranked in the top 10 of Division I with a 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Dingle has played in 69 games over the past two seasons. He averaged 4.4 points per game and 2.8 rebounds per game last year. He scored 14 points in Temple’s win over then-unbeaten Southern Methodist last season.

Williams has averaged 3.8 points per game in 92 career games.

"These young men have been with the program their entire careers and each provides a different leadership style that will bode well for our success," Dunphy said in a statement. "They are all quality individuals who lead by example, on and off the court."