Defending champs looking to make another March run
This year’s senior students at Villanova have been treated to a run of basketball success that usually is reserved for the most elite programs in the college basketball world. With two national titles in three years, the Wildcats have stepped forward and become a true powerhouse, and it’s impossible not to consider them among the best of the best.
Coach Jay Wright has reinvented his team over the past several years, recruiting players who want to stay on campus for three or four years (mostly) and are willing to play a kind of selfless basketball that isn’t often found in the collegiate game’s upper echelons. That has brought unprecedented success for the program, which has won 136 games since the start of the 2014-15 season, the most by any school over a four-year stretch in NCAA history.
Villanova’s title defense looks pretty daunting this year, thanks to the early departures of last year’s four leading scorers, forwards Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman and guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. Although the VU newcomers are strong, and holdovers such as Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have proven themselves in championship settings, it’s likely that the Wildcats will take a step back this year — while still playing selfless, successful team ball.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Jay Wright
2017-18 RECORD (BIG EAST): 36-4 (14-4)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Beat Michigan 79-62 in the Championship Game
F Mikal Bridges (17.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
G Jalen Brunson (18.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.6 apg)
G Donte DiVincenzo (13.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.5 apg)
F Omari Spellman (10.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg)
Most people expected Bridges to leave after last season, since just about every draft forecast had him safely in the NBA Lottery, where he landed. But Spellman’s decision to bolt after just one year on the court was a bit of a surprise. Spellman’s size, shooting and ability to defend multiple positions would have helped Nova considerably this year. In both of their title seasons, the Wildcats had a big man capable of helping at both ends of the court.
But he isn’t coming back, so it’s up to Paschall, now a senior, and a collection of youngsters to get it done up front. Paschall has proven he can do a variety of things — shoot the 3, set up teammates, hit the boards and defend. After being last year’s fifth-leading scorer, he’ll be a focal point. “I think he has the potential to be a really special player,” Wright says. “He can literally play every position.”
Sophomore Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree became more valuable as the year progressed. He is a reliable interior finisher and solid offensive board man who will get more playing time. His classmate, 6'5" Jermaine Samuels, was hurt early and didn’t get a rotation spot, but he has perimeter skills.
Three freshmen are worth watching: Late signee Saddiq Bey goes 6'7" and is versatile at both ends; Cole Swider can hit from deep; and Brandon Slater is athletic and able to help at both ends.
Booth was playing extremely well last year before breaking his hand, and while he returned to contribute to the title run, Wright wants to see what he can do in a new role. “He’s so selfless,” Wright says. “I’m so excited for him to be the guy this year.” Booth can handle and distribute, shoots well and is a great leader.
Sophomore Collin Gillespie showed last year he could shoot and set up his teammates, but he’ll be pushed by five-star freshman Jahvon Quinerly, a former Arizona recruit who can do many things. Graduate transfer Joe Cremo averaged 17.8 points at Albany last year and led the America East with a 45.8 percent 3-point accuracy.
Some are predicting a precipitous drop for the Cats, thanks to all the lost talent. But Booth and Paschall are strong leaders who are ready to be top producers. The sophomores have plenty of potential, especially Cosby-Roundtree and Gillespie, while Quinerly leads a robust crop of newcomers that will provide at least a couple key contributors. Villanova might not be cutting down the nets again, but it will be pretty darn good.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
Big East Prediction: 1st