Villanova Wildcats

Josh Hart overcomes late miscues to put Villanova in Big East Tournament title game

Josh Hart overcomes late miscues to put Villanova in Big East Tournament title game

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NEW YORK -- Tough to imagine a Josh Hart turnover in the final seconds of a tight Big East Conference tournament game against Seton Hall.

Now imagine it happening two years in a row.

Last year, Hart committed a costly turnover with 20 seconds left and Villanova leading Seton Hall by two in the Big East championship game. That turnover led to Isaiah Whitehead's game-winning basket and foul shot and Seton Hall's upset win over Villanova.

Even though Villanova roared to the NCAA title a month later, it's a play that haunted Hart.

"It does still," he said at his locker Friday night.

Fast forward to this year.

The opponent again was Seton Hall, and this time it was a semifinal game with 46 seconds left and Villanova trailing by a point.

And again the unthinkable.

Another Hart turnover.

And even in the heat of battle before a packed house at Madison Square Garden, Hart couldn't help think back to the turnover a year earlier.

"Oh, man," Hart said after Villanova had hung on for a 57-55 win in the Big East semifinals (see Instant Replay). "That came to my mind for a second. For a quick second I thought about that one."

It wasn't Hart's only gaffe in the final two minutes. On Villanova's previous possession, with 1:16 left and Villanova trailing by a point, he missed the front end of a one-and-one.

A very rare and very rough stretch for the national Player of the Year candidate.

"I'm a competitor and I missed that front end of that one-and-one down one," he said. "I'm like, 'Come on, Josh, you can't miss the front end of a one-and-one with two minutes left in the game down one. You can't do that."

Next possession? The turnover.

"Coach called a play," he said. "I was a little too aggressive. I should have passed it. Turned the ball over. 'Come on, Josh.' Two things that are uncharacteristic for me."

Villanova is a successful basketball team because it's very talented and very well-coached, but it's also a remarkably tight-knit group of kids that are unfailingly unselfish and team-oriented.

After his critical turnover, the four other Wildcats on the floor came over and encouraged Hart as Seton Hall prepared to inbound.

"Everybody came over and said, 'Attitude, let's get a stop,'" Hart said. "That's why this team … I think we're a good team but that's why I think we can get better. Times like that where you make what could be a costly mistake, everyone comes up to you and says, 'Next play, hey, let's get a stop.'

"I said, 'I'm right there with you, let's go.' And we came and we got some stops."

And Hart got redemption.

When Kris Jenkins' potential game-winning three from the left wing sailed long, Hart soared over Seton Hall's Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado and gave Villanova the lead with 9.6 seconds left.

Hart was fouled and made the free throw, and after Delgado into missing a game-winning attempt in the paint, Villanova had a dramatic win and for the third straight year a berth in the Big East title game.

The Wildcats will play Creighton at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the championship game.  

"I knew it was hard," Hart said of Jenkins' miss. "Right when he shot it I said, 'Oh, that's off.' I knew he put a little bit too much mustard on it and it bounced perfectly. Half of that was luck."

Hart finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds as Villanova improved to 30-3 with its third win over Seton Hall this year. The first two were by 22 and 30 points.

"I got a good look and he was in a perfect position to follow it up," Jenkins said. "He's a great athlete. He's the best player in the country. Whether he gets the award or not, I don't care. He's by far the best player in the country. Nothing he does ever surprises me."

Jalen Brunson added 13 points for Villanova, and freshman Donte DiVincenzo had nine off the bench.

Villanova shot just 26 percent in the first half and fell behind by 11 points. The Wildcats shot 59 percent in the second half.

Really, this game was an instant replay of last year's. At least for the first 39 minutes and 50 seconds.

"Very similar," Hart said. "I think the last play, last year we did something very uncharacteristic and we learned from that. This year, we buckled down, we had our attention to detail the last couple possessions and we got stops."

Villanova, which scored a tournament-record 108 points in its 41-point win over St. John's on Thursday, made just five of 19 threes Friday and really had to scramble for every point it got.

Nothing came easy for the Wildcats.

"I'm glad we were able to be challenged like that," senior center Darryl Reynolds said. "It doesn't happen a lot, so you've got to be thankful for those challenges because they make you stronger. To pull through a game like this, it teaches you a lot about yourself and a lot about your team.

"It's just sticking together and making sure, 'Hey, let's not panic.' Are we mad that we're down? Of course. But let's not panic and lose our minds."

Villanova has been in enough big games to understand how to respond when trailing by double digits.

"We couldn't dwell on the past, we couldn't dwell on the mistakes we were making defensively, we definitely couldn't dwell on the shots we were missing," Brunson said.

"So we just thought about the next play and hopefully get better and keep fighting. As long as we're together, as long as we're fighting like that, we're going to be good. As long as we stick together."

Nobody kept fighting in the face of adversity more than Hart.

"Luckily my guys picked me up," Hart said. "We got some stops at the end and luckily we were able to gut out this one. A little bit different from last year. At least the ending was different."

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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AP Images

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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USA Today Images

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.