VILLANOVA, Pa. — Of all the what ifs looking back on the 2016-17 Villanova basketball season, one stands above the rest:
How good would the Wildcats have been if blue-chip recruit Omari Spellman hadn’t been ruled ineligible by the NCAA? What would it have been like to watch him as a freshman alongside star seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds? Could the Wildcats have even returned to the Final Four or repeated as national champs by adding another potential star to a thin rotation?
There’s no sense thinking much about that anymore, of course. Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds have since graduated, and the Wildcats will bring a much younger team into the 2017-18 campaign, which begins Nov. 10 vs. Columbia.
But just getting the opportunity to be around last year’s seniors — and everyone else on another dominant Wildcats team — still proved to be helpful for Spellman as he prepares for his first college season.
“I learned a lot from Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds about how to play hard and be a part of a culture,” Spellman said from Villanova’s media day Tuesday. “It was great to learn from those guys. I consider all three of them my older brothers. I just learned a lot how to be a great teammate from those guys and I’m thankful for having them.”
Spellman, who was ruled ineligible last September and forced to take an academic redshirt year, still practiced with the team last season and said he also “learned a lot” about defense and schemes. And although he didn’t travel, he continued his development during those road trips by working out hard with graduate assistant Henry Lowe, a former ’Nova walk-on.
Still, it wasn’t easy watching games from the stands or on TV as the Wildcats soared to their fourth straight Big East regular-season title.
“Just as a competitor, I wanted to be out there trying to help my teammates in games,” he admitted. “It killed me to let those guys go to war knowing I couldn’t do anything for them except help them prepare in practice. It was just hard. In a way, it felt like I was letting them down.
“But we moved past it and made it a positive.”
How much of a positive?
In his 17 seasons in charge, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said he’s never coached a big man with as much talent and promise as Spellman, who received offers from Arizona, Indiana, Florida and some of the other biggest programs in the nation before deciding on 'Nova.
“We haven’t had a big guy that good that early in his career,” Wright said. “Now he is not at a point where Daniel Ochefu was at the end of his career. And we might never see that here. But in the beginning of his career, he is one of the most talented young forwards that we’ve had.”
Wright has also been impressed with the work the 6-foot-9 forward did in the offseason as he slimmed down in a big way, dropping 40 pounds and really increasing his mobility and fitness.
“He’s very talented but when you’re out of shape or overweight you don’t get to show all of your talent,” the ’Nova coach said. “Being in the condition he is now is allowing him to show, for longer periods of time, his talent. He’s still young, he still does get fatigued. It’s more mental now but something I think he can improve throughout the season.”
Spellman has certainly impressed his teammates with captain Jalen Brunson saying he “brings another dimension to our team” and calling him “the full package” because he can bang down low and also hit outside shots.
And Brunson’s backcourt mate, Donte DiVincenzo, liked what he saw out of Spellman last season as he was “picking our brain” to learn more about Villanova basketball during his redshirt year.
“O is a great player,” DiVincenzo said. “He does a great job leading as well. I think that hasn’t been shown yet because he hasn’t played but he does a great job holding everyone accountable, and holding himself accountable. He holds himself to higher standards, never accepts mediocre, wants to be a great player and wants us to be a great team.”
Expectations are certainly high for Spellman, who was named the preseason Big East Rookie of the Year. And expectations, as they always are, are also high for the Wildcats, who were once again picked to win the conference.
But Spellman, perhaps taking a lesson from last year’s seniors and the team’s current veterans, said he doesn’t pay attention to any of that. He’s similarly low-key when talking about what kind of emotions he’ll be feeling when he steps onto the court for his first college basketball game in a couple of weeks.
“I’ve never really been a guy to have a lot of jitters, so I don’t know,” he said. “It’s something I’ve never done before. It’s new. So we’ll see how it goes.”