Villanova Wildcats

How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

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NBCSP/USA Today Images

How Villanova's Mikal Bridges morphed into potential lottery pick

Mikal Bridges put his own personal stamp on Villanova's most impressive win of the young season Tuesday night. That stamp came in the form of a soaring, one-handed jam over a trio of Gonzaga defenders, accounting for two of his career-high 28 points in the fourth-ranked Wildcats' easier than expected 16-point win at Madison Square Garden.

Bridges' comments after the game were as impressive as that dunk and his overall performance, best illustrating how far he's come in four years at Villanova. Bridges was asked by the Big East Digital Network about his leadership style.

"I'm trying to lead by doing all the little things," Bridges said. "Let the young guys watch me do all the little things and they know if our captain, our leader is doing that, then they're going to do the same thing."   

If you closed your eyes and listened to those words, you could have sworn they were coming from Josh Hart last year. Or Ryan Arcidiacono the year before that, or Darrun Hilliard three years ago. Bridges spent the early portion of his college career watching and learning from all of those star players. It enabled him to transition seamlessly into a leadership role once it became his turn to lead. That cycle is the biggest reason for Villanova's unprecedented run of success the past five seasons. 

No player embodies "Villanova Basketball" more so than Bridges. His story is unique in this age of one-and-done college basketball stars. He has taken the road less traveled to becoming one of the best players in the country and standing on the brink of NBA stardom. 

Patience pays off
Bridges arrived at Villanova in the Fall of 2014 as a Top 100 recruit but nowhere near a finished product. While he dominated at the high school level at nearby Great Valley, it became apparent rather quickly that he needed to bulk up his wiry frame to compete at the Big East level. 

Jay Wright presented the possibility of red-shirting to Bridges — the idea being to spend a year practicing with the team but more importantly getting stronger in the weight room. It was a reasonable suggestion albeit one that was hard for Bridges to accept. He had been a star his whole basketball career and the thought of not playing a game for 12 months must have seemed like an eternity.    

Bridges made the difficult decision to sit out for a year. It was the right move. He's gone from red-shirting in 2015 to being the sixth man for a national championship team in 2016 to the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in 2017 and now an All-American candidate as a junior who could end up being a lottery pick in six months. 

There's been a lot of attention given to the fact that five of Villanova's top six players red-shirted at some point during their careers. In actuality, only Bridges made the decision to do so without being forced into it either by injury or NCAA guidelines. Phil Booth was sidelined by a knee injury last year. Donte DiVincenzo broke his foot early in his freshman season. Eric Paschall had to sit out a year after transferring from Fordham. Omari Spellman was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA last season. 

But Bridges didn't have to red-shirt. He thought it would be best for his growth and development. As the rest of the college basketball world is currently finding out, he was right.

Draft stock soaring
Bridges was already popping up in 2018 mock drafts prior to the start of the season. His long, lanky body type and high-end athleticism are tailor-made for the NBA, enabling him to be disruptive on the defensive end and explosive offensively.  

Bridges proved himself an efficient shooter last year, knocking down 55 percent of his field goal attempts, 39 percent of his threes and 91 percent of his foul shots. But he was often the fourth option on a team featuring Hart, Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson. Factor in a dip in production in March and there were serious questions concerning Bridges heading into his junior season. Namely, how would he respond being a focal point of the Villanova offense? And could he find that level of consistency that often alluded him?

Less than a month into the season, those questions have been answered. Through nine games, he's averaging 19.0 points in addition to 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. He's shooting 57 percent from the field and a ridiculous 51 percent from three-point range. Bridges was at his best when the lights were brightest — those career-high 28 points against Gonzaga came in front of dozens of NBA scouts at Madison Square Garden. 

As a result, Bridges has ensured he will be a first-round pick should he decide to leave Villanova next spring. With more performances like the one he delivered against Gonzaga, the lottery seems like a more and more realistic destination. 

Bridges is poised to join Hart as the only first-round picks from Villanova in the last 12 years. He could join perennial All-Star Kyle Lowry as the only Villanova players in the Jay Wright Era who left school early and became first-round picks. But for the next four months, Bridges will be focused on bringing another Big East championship and potentially another national title to Villanova. As he's shown throughout the course of his career, he's not one to get ahead of himself.

Saddiq Bey's career-high 27 points help No. 23 Villanova hold off Penn

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USA Today Images/Bill Streicher

Saddiq Bey's career-high 27 points help No. 23 Villanova hold off Penn

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Saddiq Bey kept another surprise defeat at bay for Villanova, and again made the Wildcats the top contender for another city championship.

Bey scored a career-high 27 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 13 points and 12 rebounds to lead No. 23 Villanova to an 80-69 victory over Penn on Wednesday night.

The Wildcats (6-2) finally pulled away from the Quakers over the final two minutes to avoid a second straight loss to their Philadelphia basketball rivals. Justin Moore converted a three-point play to give Villanova the breathing room it needed to hold off pesky Penn (5-4).

"The reason those games are like that and always have been is because we all know each other," coach Jay Wright said.

Jordan Dingle and AJ Brodeur each scored 18 points for Penn. Moore finished with 17 for the Wildcats.

The Quakers pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Philly hoops history last season when they knocked off the national champion Wildcats 78-75 at the Palestra. The Wildcats had won a city-record 25 straight games against Big 5 rivals Temple, Saint Joseph's, La Salle and the Quakers. Penn would win the Big 5 title but not the Ivy League crown that could have sent it back to the NCAA Tournament.

The Quakers came out determined to prove they were no one-upset wonder. They forced the game into the paint and kept the Wildcats from relying on the 3 to put them away. Brodeur scored 12 points and the Quakers had the game tied at 30-all late in the first half.

Jermaine Samuels swayed the game toward Villanova on a monster block on Devon Goodman's fast-break attempt and Bey capitalized with a thunderous jam on the other end that brought the fans to their feet. The dunk gave Bey 23 points, one better than his career high set earlier this season against Army.

Much like last season, the Quakers weren't going away. Goodman buried a 3 and quickly dunked off his own steal to bring the 11½-point underdog Quakers within four midway through the second half. Dingle hit a 3 to make it a one-point game and suddenly the thought of another shocker was in full force on Villanova's campus. Penn students stormed the court, tossed streamers, hopped around at midcourt, and mobbed the players after last season's win at the Palestra.

Robinson-Earl is a freshman and had nothing to do with the defeat, and knew even less about the Big 5. But one big game against the Quakers -- hardly confused with the powerhouse programs the Wildcats beat in March -- changed his perspective on the rivalry's meaning.

"The coaches have told me, the players have told me, it's just so important," he said. "I don't know a lot of the history about it but I can see from the energy Coach gives about how important it is."

The fans inside the Pavilion were all but silenced when the Quakers made it 48-47. The Quakers kept driving inside to keep the deficit within single digits and Dingle got a rise out of the Penn bench on a two-handed dunk. Try as they might, the Quakers couldn't stop Bey and couldn't go on enough of a run to ever take the lead. Goodman hit Penn's seventh 3 to make it 68-64 with Bey on the bench with four fouls.

The Wildcats made only 4 of 10 3-pointers; Bey was 10 of 18 overall with six rebounds.

"I don't know if we were ready for the physicality he brought to the game," Brodeur said. "He scored a lot of points at the basket."

The Wildcats held Penn to only five points over the final 4 minutes to hang on for the tougher-than-necessary victory.

"Three minutes to go, I thought the plan was working," Penn coach Steve Donohue said. "We just kind of ran out of gas on the offensive end.

Big picture 

Penn: The Quakers have never won on Villanova's campus, falling to 0-12.

Villanova: The Wildcats have 26 Big 5 titles, second to Temple's 28. Villanova won five straight before the Quakers ended the run last season but the Wildcats seem poised to go hard after another city title this season. They are 2-0 this season.

Up next 

Penn: The Quakers have a long layoff until they host Widener on Dec. 21.

Villanova: The Wildcats play Sunday at Saint Joseph's in traditionally the biggest city hoops game of the season.

Justin Moore scores 25 points in No. 22 Villanova's win over La Salle

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USA Today Images/Eric Hartline

Justin Moore scores 25 points in No. 22 Villanova's win over La Salle

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Coach Jay Wright has a talented but inexperienced team at Villanova this year, capable of being dangerous and maddening — sometimes in the same game.

Justin Moore had 25 points off the bench, Saddiq Bey scored 19 and the 22nd-ranked Wildcats survived a sloppy second half to beat La Salle 83-72 on Sunday night.

"We've had different guys who have come up big for us on different nights," Wright said. "It was Justin for us tonight."

Villanova (5-2) went on a 28-6 run midway through the first half to build a 48-28 cushion at halftime. The Explorers closed within 10 twice in the second half thanks to some pesky defense that held the Wildcats without a field goal for over seven minutes. Villanova also committed 12 turnovers in the second half, helping La Salle hang around.

"They made better adjustments than us at halftime," Wright said. "They played hard and we made mistakes that an inexperienced team makes. Juniors who haven't been go-to guys and sophomores who haven't been leaders. But they are learning."

Ed Croswell led La Salle (4-3) with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and 10 rebounds. David Beatty had 12 points for the Explorers.

"I'm proud of the way that our guys battled," said La Salle coach Ashley Howard, who was an assistant to Wright from 2013-18, a span that included two national titles. "We battled, but the first half we let the game get away from us with turnovers and poor transition defense."

Moore scored 15 points in the first half to help Villanova build the lead. Bey and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl each had 10 rebounds.

"We have to learn how to come out and play hard for 40 minutes," Moore said. "We had a great first half, but we have to match that intensity in the second half."

Collin Gillespie contributed 14 points for the Wildcats, who have won seven in a row against their Philadelphia Big Five City Series rival and improved to 26-1 since 2012-13 against the four other Division I schools in the unique college basketball association. The only loss in that span for the Wildcats came on Dec. 11, 2018, to Pennsylvania.

Big picture 

La Salle: Coming off a tournament win at the Gulf Coast Showdown last week, the Explorers dropped a game against a Wildcats squad that has bedeviled them for almost 20 years. Still, they have enough talent to make noise in the Atlantic 10.

Villanova: The Wildcats could move up in the AP Top 25 thanks to a chaotic week for teams above them, but their second-half struggles showed they are hardly a complete team.

Up next 

LaSalle: At Philly rival Drexel on Saturday.

Villanova: Hosts Big Five rival Pennsylvania on Wednesday night.