Villanova Wildcats

Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

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Vets for No. 1 Villanova help put the D in details

BOX SCORE

Even as Villanova ascended to the No. 1 ranking in college basketball — twice — head coach Jay Wright could sense something was amiss.

Sure, the Wildcats were blowing teams out of the building but some of the scores gave him pause. 

Giving up 71 points to Hofstra in late December was far from ideal and allowing 85 points at DePaul five days later was even more worrisome. Then, at Butler a day before New Year’s Eve, Wright said “it all blew up” as Villanova surrendered 101 points in its first loss of the season that knocked the team off its No. 1 perch. And even though the ‘Cats surpassed 100 themselves in Saturday’s bounce-back win vs. Marquette that returned them to the No. 1 throne, they still gave up 90.

In other words, defense was a problem. A potentially serious one if they didn’t fix it.

It looks like they have — at least on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center as they handcuffed No. 10 Xavier in a confidence-boosting 89-65 triumph (see observations).

“A very good performance by us against an outstanding team,” Wright said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit defensively and our guys really stepped it up.”

The ’Nova coach credited two of his top offensive players — Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges  — for setting the tone on the defensive end of the floor as the Wildcats got their hands in the passing lane, took Xavier stars Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura out of their rhythm, and forced the Musketeers to shoot a dismal 3 for 17 from three-point range.

For Booth, who also had an exceptional offensive game with a career-high 21 points on 5 for 8 shooting from behind the arc, that was clearly the high point of the night — and something he said the guys have been really stressing in practice.

“Without a doubt,” Booth said when asked if he took the recent string of defensive performances personally. “We couldn’t care less if we’re missing shots. If we lose a game 60-55, that’s not a problem for us. But defensively, people feeling they can score on us at any time is something we took as a challenge personally — from the coaches, captains, all the way down.” 

“Practice,” Bridges chipped in. “Getting better in our concepts. Practicing our defense and rebounding, that’s what made us go out here today. Coach knew what he had to do by doing a lot of concepts in our practices and we just keep getting better.”

So how exactly do you tell players on the nation’s top-ranked team that they need to forget their scorching offensive numbers and get down to the nitty-gritty defensive details every day in practice?

On another team with as many underclassmen as Villanova has, Wright admitted, it might not be easy. But having upperclassmen with a national title under their belt like Booth, Bridges and Jalen Brunson makes all the difference in the world.

“The older guys get it,” the ’Nova coach said. “A guy like Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree or Omari [Spellman], even Donte [DiVincenzo], they’re looking at you like, ‘We scored 100 points. We’re winning. What’s the big deal?’ It’s just human nature.

“But these guys,” Wright added, looking to Bridges and Brunson. “They’ve been around enough. These guys have picked it up quickly. I think it’s hard for any player when you’re winning to still focus on getting better. And if you have smart, older guys that can pass it down and set an example, that’s what happens and that’s why I was really proud of these guys.”

Villanova’s “older guys” aren’t just impressing their own coach. Xavier head coach Chris Mack was full of both frustration and praise after his national-caliber program was smoked at Villanova for a third straight year. (The Musketeers lost to the Wildcats by 25 last season and 31 a year before that.)

“It’s just a credit to Jay, his coaching staff, his team,” Mack said. “I’ve said before: they have an identity. We, along with probably all the other teams that play them, understand who they’re gonna be. They’re gonna be in passing lanes, they’re gonna try to rattle you on offense, they’re gonna shoot a lot of threes, and stretch the floor. And I think they’re led by the best point guard in college basketball.”

That would be Brunson, who had 17 points, five assists and only one turnover.

“He’s stoic,” Mack said. “If you peel his face off, he’ll probably have wires coming out of it. He’s phenomenal.”

Booth might be a little more human than the seemingly robotic Brunson. And that, for Wright, is what makes his story so special, as he’s slowly progressed from a season-ending injury last year to become one of the better players in the Big East.

“You forget because he doesn’t complain and he works so hard and he’s playing well,” Wright said. “But as a player, you’ve had an injury, you’re coming back, it feels good, you look good, but there’s gotta be some point when you think, ‘All right, I’m back.’ I would like to think tonight he got that feeling. He’s been playing great but I just saw a different confidence in him tonight.”

The ’Nova coach then asked Booth if he felt the same thing, and the redshirt junior mentioned the Dec. 5 Gonzaga game as a turning point.

“I don’t know,” Wright responded. “It looked good tonight, man.”

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

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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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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.