Villanova Wildcats

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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Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Villanova's buzzer-beating win over Georgetown in 1999 was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

January 30th 1999.  I was a 15-year-old who wondered how the Phillies would build around Scott Rolen, marveled at Lindros and LeClair’s 40 goal seasons, happy to have Iverson back after a lockout and was suspicious about some guy named ‘Reid’ the Eagles just hired.  

In the midst of all this, my best bud, Ryan Bennett and his family, scored tickets to Villanova vs. Georgetown at the now Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday noon tipoff and they were kind enough to invite me along.  

I remember Ryan and I had a CYO High School basketball game that night in Lansdale at 7 p.m.

“No problem, plenty of time”, we thought. 

The Bennett’s picked me up at that morning and off we went to what would be the best game I ever saw... 

Our seats were in the upper level, 1st row, in a corner at the end Nova would be shooting at in the 2nd half.

Steve Lapas’ Wildcats opened with a 13-0 run on Craig Esherick’s Hoyas. Esherick had just taken over for the legend, John Thompson. 

Just as an aside. My friend and I kept thinking Esherick looked A LOT like Norm MacDonald as Burt Reynolds (aka Turd Ferguson) on SNL’s celebrity Jeopardy. You be the judge…

Anyway, back to basketball.  

In the 2nd half, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead only to see it wiped away with a 17-0 Hoyas run. Georgetown’s Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje’s lay-up tied the game at 67 with 2:30 left. RBB was a Cameroonian baller before it was trendy. 

I remember a slew of guys were in foul trouble. Including RBB and Malik Allen.

In the final :45 seconds, tied at 69-69, both Nova and G-town sent guys to the line to shoot two. Neither team hit a free throw. Missed all four.  

Nova had one final chance on an inbounds play with 11 seconds left in regulation. John Celestand got the ball, tried working for a shot, gave it up to Allen who shot and missed from the top of the key as time expired.  

1st OT

The Hoyas struck first with a three, then three players fouled out; the Hoyas’ RBB and Jaleel Watkins and Nova’s T.J. Caouette. Six players would end up fouling out of this game in total. 

With :11 seconds left and Nova down two, Brooks Sales hit two free throws to tie it at 78. Kevin Braswell, a freshman guard for the Hoyas brought the ball up and was picked up by Celestand. Braswell rose for the game winner with :03 seconds on the clock and Celestand stuffed him! The ball never even left the freshman’s hand! Celestand was all over it. Smothered! 

Time ran out. 

2nd OT 

The game seesawed a bit. Howard Brown banked in a three for Nova. Braswell responded with a driving lay-up. 82-81, Georgetown.

With a little over 2:00 left, Allen, fouled out.  Nova would keep pace thanks to a huge three from Brian Lynch with just over a minute left that gave the Cats an 87-86 lead.   

Then things got bleak for Nova. 

Georgetown took a 90-87 lead on another Braswell layup and a free throws from Daymond Jackson and Anthony Perry. Perry made the first of two, missed the second. Nova secured the rebound and pushed up the floor with :14 seconds left. 

Then a Nova Miracle. 

The Wildcats, down 3, crossed half court and set up their offense with nine seconds left. They worked it to Brown in the corner. The same corner my friend and I were sitting over in the upper level. Brown let it fly and hit the three to tie the game at 90. With 2.4 seconds left the Hoyas inbounded under the basket and threw a pass to half court. The ball was tipped by Nova and wound up in the hands of the Cats’ Jermaine Medley. Medley grabbed the ball, spun and shot all in one motion. 


Buzzer Beater. 

Nova Wins! 

The Wildcats scored six points in under four seconds to win in double overtime, 93-90. 

Me, Ryan and his parents jumped with excitement, high-fived and then ran to the parking lot. We had our own game to play. We got from the upper level to the car in record time and we were one of the first cars out of the lot. We just made our CYO game in Lansdale, which for the record, we won.

One of the things that made being at this game so awesome was that the broadcast had a horrible camera angle for Medley’s game winner. ESPN didn’t capture the shot live. When Ryan and I got to our game that night, a teammate couldn’t believe we “were at that game.” He said it wasn’t until replays aired that people at home actually saw what happened.  

Fast forward 17 years. I’m boarding a flight, Charlotte to Philadelphia. Christmas Eve. None-other-than Steve Lappas sits next to me. We get to talking. Incredibly nice guy. I bring up this Nova game. Two things he told me. He knew Celestand had Braswell on that block in the first OT and he still can’t believe how Medley made that circus shot at the end. Neither can I. 

Nova-Georgetown double OT, truly the best game I ever saw.  

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

The Kris Jenkins shot vs. North Carolina was The Best Game I Ever Saw Live

Reuben Frank and Sean Kane both chose the 2016 national championship game between Villanova and North Carolina as the greatest game they ever saw in person. Reuben was there as a reporter, Sean was there as a fan. Here are each of their perspectives. 

Reuben Frank: We're taught from Day 1 as journalists to never let your emotions show, to remain unbiased, and for the first 33 years, six months and 12 days of my career I had a perfect record. Then Kris Jenkins hit a jumper. So much for objectivity. I was court-side at NRG Stadium in Houston - second row, center court - when Jenkins his that 26-footer at the buzzer to give Villanova the 2016 NCAA Championship over North Carolina, and I'm pretty sure that Mike Kern of the Daily News, sitting to my left, and I both stood up and looked at each other and screamed "OHHHHHHHHHHH" at the top of our lungs when the ball splashed through the basket as the buzzer sounded.

Then, as the confetti rained down from the roof and bedlam ensued, Jenkins for some reason ran right in front of me to celebrate and I began taking as many pictures as I could. The Super Bowl was dramatic and unforgettable. But for that Villanova-UNC game I was on top of the action, just a few feet from the court, just a few feet where I lost my cool after 33 years, just a few feet from the greatest shot in college basketball history. 

Sean Kane: This game narrowly edges out Super Bowl 52 and the classic Duke/Kentucky regional final at the Spectrum in 1992. I'm fortunate enough to have been in attendance for arguably the two greatest shots in college basketball history - Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky and Kris Jenkins' three-pointer to beat North Carolina. The 2016 national title game is my choice for a number of reasons. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I've been a Villanova fan for as long as I can remember. My grandfather went to Villanova. My uncle and cousin went there too. I've been going to Villanova basketball and football games since I was a little boy. So to be there to see my favorite team win a national championship at the buzzer? Nothing tops that. 

The 2016 Final Four was the first time I attended a Villanova NCAA Tournament game as a fan. I covered Villanova in the tournament every year from 2006-2009, trying my best to stay objective. But going as a fan was a new experience. My Dad and I decided to go as soon as Villanova beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. My wife immediately got us plane tickets and a hotel room in Houston and we left the morning of the national semifinals. We were there for Villanova's historic 44-point win over Oklahoma on Saturday night, the biggest blowout in Final Four history. The PGA Tour was in Houston that weekend, so we spent Sunday watching golf. It all worked out perfectly. Then the main event - Villanova and North Carolina in the championship game on Monday night. North Carolina had ended Villanova's season in the NCAA Tournament three times during the Jay Wright Era - 2005, 2009 and 2013. But this time was different thanks to Phil Booth's 20 points off the bench and Ryan Arcidiacono finding Jenkins for the win as the buzzer sounded. It was one of the greatest games in college basketball history. It ended with the best shot in NCAA Tournament history. And I was there to see it with my Dad, who raised me as a Villanova fan. That's as good as it gets for me.