Mikal Bridges arrived at Villanova as a high-scoring forward who could run the floor with the best of them, post up in the paint and bomb in the occasional three-pointer. Didn't take long before he was a defensive specialist.
Now, he's one of the best defensive players in the Big East.
Bridges, the sophomore from Great Valley, is among three players to share the conference's Defensive Player of the Year award. Teammate Josh Hart and Khyri Thomas of Creighton share the honor with Bridges in balloting by the league's head coaches.
"It feels great to go out there and just play as hard as I can," Bridges said. "I try to go out there and help my teammates and play great defense, whether it's off-ball or on-ball and try to be the best teammate, that's what I'm really proud of."
It's tough statistically to measure individual defensive prowess, but Bridges does rank fifth in the Big East with 1.7 steals per game and seventh in blocks at 0.9 per game.
As a team, Villanova is among the best in NCAA Division I defensively -- seventh in field goal defense, 17th in scoring defense, 27th in three-point defense and sixth-best in fewest fouls committed.
And Bridges, with his lanky frame, long arms and nonstop intensity, is as tough a defensive forward as the Wildcats have had in years.
"He came in as a high school scoring phenom like they all do, so I'm really proud of how he has opened up his game defensively," Jay Wright said.
"He really started to take pride in it last year because he knew that would get him on the floor, but I think he took pride in it this year knowing that's what great players do. It's different each year. I'm really proud that he continued to improve defensively this year when he became a starter."
Bridges has improved in every way this year.
On last year's national championship team, he came off the bench to average 20 minutes, 6.4 points and 3.2 rebounds.
This year, Bridges is averaging 30 minutes, 9.9 points per game, shooting 56 percent from the field (fourth-best in the Big East) and 39 percent from three (12th-best in the Big East), to go with 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks.
He's one of just four players in Division I to average at least 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and assists per game and shoot at least 55 percent. And one of just eight players to average at least 0.9 blocks and at least 1.7 steals per game.
He can score, but Bridges knows the reason he's a starter on the nation's top-ranked team is because of his defense.
"That's how it goes here. If you don't play defense here, you won't play and that's how it's going right now," Bridges said.
"Everybody here plays defense. I was blessed with the ability, my length and the opportunities I get in the game, but defending is the main thing for anybody. Even Kris (Jenkins) and Josh (Hart), as much as they can score, they build up the offensive energy from the defensive end."
Bridges played well in last year's NCAA run, averaging 22 minutes in 'Nova's six tourney games, shooting 63 percent and contributing 6.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals.
He and Hart are Villanova's first Big East Defensive Players of the Year since Jason Lawson won the honor 20 years ago in 1997. Harold Presley in 1986 and Gary Massey in 1988 also won the award for the Wildcats.
Villanova opens the defense of its NCAA title at 7:10 p.m. Thursday in Buffalo when the Wildcats face Mount St. Mary's.
Most of the attention will be on Hart, Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, but keep an eye on Bridges. Especially when Villanova doesn't have the ball. That's where you'll see him really make a difference.
"His length is a big part of [his defensive ability], but his intelligence is also a big part," Wright said.
"He plays the top of our press, he plays different players -- he'll guard point guards, he'll guard forwards -- and he's got to know the personnel and their tendencies, he's got to know our scouting report. So he's a really bright defensive player, also."
History of Big East Defensive Player of the Year
2017 -- Josh Hart, Villanova; Mikal Bridges, Villanova; Khyri Thomas, Creighton
2016 -- Kris Dunn, Providence
2015 -- Kris Dunn, Providence; Sir'Dominic Pointer, St. John's
2014 -- Fuquan Edwin, Seton Hall
2013 -- Gorgui Dieng, Louisville
2012 -- Fab Melo, Syracuse
2011 -- Rick Jackson, Syracuse
2010 -- Hamady Ndiaye, Rutgers
2009 -- Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
2008 -- Hasheem Thabeet, UConn
2007 -- Jerel McNeal, Marquette
2006 -- Hilton Armstrong, UConn
2005 -- Josh Boone, UConn
2004 -- Emeka Okafor, UConn
2003 -- Emeka Okafor, UConn
2002 -- John Linehan, Providence
2001 -- John Linehan, Providence
2000 -- Etan Thomas, Syracuse
1999 -- Etan Thomas, Syracuse
1998 -- Damian Owens, West Virginia
1997 -- Jason Lawson, Villanova
1996 -- Allen Iverson, Georgetown
1995 -- Allen Iverson, Georgetown
1994 -- Donyell Marshall, UConn
1993 -- Jerry Walker, Seton Hall
1992 -- Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1991 -- Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown
1990 -- Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown; Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1989 -- Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
1988 -- Gary Massey, Villanova
1987 -- Mark Jackson, St. John’s
1986 -- Harold Pressley, Villanova
1985 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1984 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1983 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
1982 -- Patrick Ewing, Georgetown