It couldn’t end the same way, right?
It didn’t seem like last season’s version of Villanova would suffer an early exit from the NCAA Tournament after a terrific regular season — like the Wildcats had done in 2014 (and 2010, for that matter). After all, Villanova had won 15 games in a row entering the NCAA Tournament, was ranked in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and was hitting on all cylinders after rolling through the Big East Tournament.
Of course, the Wildcats ran into a hot NC State team, couldn’t defend the paint and couldn’t make shots when it mattered. Suddenly, Villanova was sent home after a 33–3 season.
Jay Wright’s group enters the season as the Big East favorite yet again, but the Wildcats are hoping to reach the second weekend in March this time around.
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
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Villanova has received far more publicity for its guards than its big men over the past few years, but the key to the Wildcats this season could be Daniel Ochefu. One of the most improved players in the Big East during his career, Ochefu was the team’s leading rebounder (8.5 rpg) and shot 64.4 percent from the field last season. The 6'11" senior had monster performances (19 points and 24 boards against Seton Hall comes to mind), but he needs to do it consistently. If Ochefu can produce double-doubles with regularity, he can provide the inside balance Villanova needs with all its perimeter options — especially with JayVaughn Pinkston graduating after last season.
Starting alongside Ochefu likely will be junior forward Kris Jenkins, who gives Wright an option up front who can step outside and knock down shots from the perimeter or score inside the paint. Jenkins had nine double-figure scoring outings last season.
Junior Darryl Reynolds, who appeared sparingly in 27 games last season, is one of the few options off the bench up front. Freshman Tim Delaney could play some minutes.
No. 10 Villanova Wildcats Facts & Figures
Last season: 33-3, 16-2 Big East
Postseason: Second round
Consecutive NCAAs: 3
Big East Projection: 1
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
As usual, the perimeter is the strength of Villanova — even without Darrun Hilliard, an all-conference guard and the team’s leading scorer last season.
Ryan Arcidiacono, the co-Big East Player of the Year in 2014-15, is back for his senior season. His production (10.1 ppg, 3.6 apg) and shooting numbers (.394 from the field, .372 from 3) never jump off the page, but “Arch” consistently hits big shots and is the guy who makes Villanova go. It’s not a surprise that two of Villanova’s three losses came in two of Arcidiacono’s worst games of the season.
Expect a bigger role for Josh Hart after the junior wing emerged as one of the best sixth men in the country a year ago. He was the team’s second-leading scorer (10.1 ppg) and was terrific in the Big East Tournament. Hart can score in a variety of ways, and his ability to finish in traffic makes him a tough matchup.
Wright has never been afraid to use two point guards in his starting lineup, and he certainly has options this season. Incoming freshman Jalen Brunson was a five-star prospect and was extremely impressive during the FIBA U19 Championships for Team USA this summer. It wouldn’t come as a shock to see him starting sooner rather than later. Sophomore Phil Booth saw extended minutes during league play last season, and he’s a talented guard who can run an offense or play off the ball.
Delaware native Donte DiVincenzo could play a bench role as a freshman, while former four-star recruit Mikal Bridges will now suit up after redshirting last season. Bridges brings versatility.
Key Losses: G Dylan Ennis, G Darrun Hilliard, F JayVaughn Pinkston
Top Players: G Ryan Arcidiacono, G Jalen Brunson, G Josh Hart, F Kris Jenkins, F Daniel Ochefu
Jalen Brunson could be one of the biggest impact freshmen in the country after being one of the elite point guards in the 2015 class. He’s good enough to start immediately and move Ryan Arcidiacono off the ball. Donte DiVincenzo is a quality local product who can play both guard positions. Tim Delaney brings toughness and a rugged style of play to the paint.
It’s a testament to Wright’s consistency and success that his team can lose an all-conference guard (Hillard), a veteran starter (Pinkston) and a third starter (Dylan Ennis) and still be picked as the clear favorite in the Big East.
Despite the losses, the Wildcats are poised to make national noise again. Arcidiacono and Ochefu bring experience — and could both be all-conference picks — while Hart is primed for a breakout season. The key likely will be Brunson, who brings an added dimension to the lineup and could push Villanova to the next level.
Of course, the team won 62 games the last two seasons, but everyone remembers the early March exits. Villanova should rectify that this year.