Villanova Wildcats

Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

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Villanova is Jalen Brunson's team now

VILLANOVA, Pa. — For a few nervous weeks following the end of the 2016-17 college basketball season, Villanova fans held their breath as they waited to see if Jalen Brunson would return to school or follow Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds out the door.

As it turned out, they had nothing to worry out.

Brunson never truly considered turning pro early because he always coveted the chance to take the leadership baton from Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds — last season’s standout senior trio — and make the Villanova program his own.

“I’ve been preparing for this moment the past couple of years,” Brunson said. “Ever since I came to Villanova, I wanted to be a leader, wanted to be a captain, wanted to be able to contribute to this culture. I’m just excited to have the opportunity.”

Considering the players they lost — Hart was one of the top players in the nation last season and Jenkins, of course, hit the famous National Championship-winning shot the season before that — the Wildcats may be hard-pressed to repeat the utter dominance of recent years. Over the last four seasons, Jay Wright’s team has amassed a combined 129-17 record.

But the Wildcats remain the favorite to win their fifth straight regular-season Big East title, and Brunson was picked as the league’s preseason player of the year.

“I never worry about anything on the outside affecting him negatively,” Wright said of the preseason accolades, which also includes the junior point guard’s inclusion on the Wooden Award watch list. “He always finds inspiration and motivation from everything that happens to him. It’s a really unique quality he has.”

Also unique is Brunson’s ability to adapt to any situation with Wright saying that the point guard's deferring to the upperclassmen during his first two seasons helped drive the team’s success but was not necessarily well-suited for him.

“Freshman year, he had a complementary role. Last year he stepped up a little bit more. But this year, it’s really obvious he’s a leader on the court and off the court,” the Villanova coach said. “It’s a very comfortable role for him. I think the last two years was probably more uncomfortable for him. He is a natural-born leader.”

Wright is also counting on Brunson to score more this year after he averaged a healthy 14.7 points per game last season. He’ll get help in that department from a loaded backcourt that also features Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth. Booth played only three games last season before sitting out with a knee injury.

“It’s really nice to have Phil back,” Wright said. “Phil is probably the most respected and well-liked player of any of the players. … I think everyone is really rooting for him and I think they’re inspired having him back.”

Wright said Booth’s ability to break down a defense and create his own shot will be a “valuable weapon.” The 'Nova coach is also excited to see Bridges, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, turn into a more complete player and see if freshman guard Collin Gillespie can turn into the next big thing.

In Friday’s season opener vs. Columbia — which, like most home games, will be played at the Wells Fargo Center while their on-campus home at the Pavilion undergoes renovations — Wright may go with a four-guard lineup that includes Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo and Gillespie with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman (see story) starting up top and Bridges and forward Eric Paschall coming in off the bench.

Either way, the Wildcats should have more depth than last season when they played only seven guys following the injury to Booth. The question is whether that will translate to the same kind of success.

“We hope our depth this year allows us to press more, play faster, not worry about guys fouling out,” Wright said. “Our depth this year will give us the chance to press more the way we want to, play faster like we want to, and lets us be more aggressive on defense and we hope be more aggressive overall.”

VILLANOVA AT A GLANCE

Head coach
Jay Wright, 17th year

Last year
• 32-4 overall, 15-3 Big East
• Won Big East regular-season and tournament championships 
• No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament (lost to Wisconsin in second round)

Top returners
• Jalen Brunson (junior guard)
• Phil Booth (redshirt junior guard)
• Donte DiVincenzo (junior guard)
• Mikal Bridges (redshirt junior guard/forward)

Key losses
• Guard Josh Hart (now with Lakers)
• Forward Kris Jenkins
• Forward Darryl Reynolds

Impact newcomers
• Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman
• Freshman Collin Gillispie

Games to watch
• Dec. 2 at Saint Joseph’s
• Dec. 5 vs. Gonzaga (New York)
• Dec. 13 at Temple
• Jan. 23 vs. Providence
• Feb. 4 vs. Seton Hall
• Feb. 24 at Creighton

Best-case scenario
Villanova enjoys playing the majority of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center, cruises to another Big East title and makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Worst-case scenario
Not having a senior hurts more than the Wildcats realize as they fall off their perch atop the Big East and once again fail to get out of the first weekend of the Big Dance.

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. 

Splash. 

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.