As Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer nestled into the nylon, and Villanova completed its ridiculous, improbable run to the 2016 national championship, nobody remembered that the Wildcats had sputtered in March several times over the previous six seasons. All that mattered was that the Big East’s best was also the nation’s best. And though senior stalwarts Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu have moved on, Villanova has plenty of holdovers and newcomers to launch a fierce defense of its crown.
All Big East predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Jay Wright
2015-16 RECORD (BIG EAST): 35–5 (16–2)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Beat North Carolina 77–74 in the championship game
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in the Big East
G Ryan Arcidiacono (12.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.2 apg)
F Daniel Ochefu (10.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
By the second half of last year, Ochefu was the best passing big man in America, thanks to his development of a post game that forced double teams and allowed him to hit open shooters.
Expect to see more of 6'8" senior Darryl Reynolds, who flashed scoring talent at times last year but will be asked to be more consistent, particularly in the post. He’s a solid rebounder who must be able to produce more on the offensive end this year — especially since freshman Omari Spellman, a top recruit, will not be eligible this season.
VU coach Jay Wright says that Jenkins can pass from the low block, too, but why would anyone want to keep that smooth a stroke away from the perimeter? The 6'6" senior flirted with the NBA, but he returned to provide substantial air cover and flash some range that goes well beyond the arc.
Villanova fans will love 6'7", 260-pound Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, who was the 2014-15 A-10 Rookie of the Year. Wright classifies him as an old-time New York scorer who puts it in the bucket from all over. Freshman Dylan Painter is a 6'10" frontcourt performer who will need some time to develop before he can really contribute. Villanova was hoping Tim Delaney would be able to provide defense and rebounding last year, but he underwent surgery on both hips, and it’s not certain whether he will be able to play this season.
While Jenkins’ decision to return for his senior year came pretty quickly, Josh Hart waited until the waning moments before announcing his intention to play at Nova in 2016-17. He returns as an outstanding all-around performer who can score in a variety of ways. He needs to improve his 3-point shooting for the next level, but his mid-range game and toughness give him an advantage over just about anybody who guards him. And it’s not like his 35.7 percent success rate from behind the arc was meager. Hart has a chance to be the Big East Player of the Year and an All-American.
One of the biggest keys to Villanova’s success last year was Jalen Brunson’s willingness to sublimate his potent offensive game to work within the Wildcats’ team concept. Once he became comfortable doing that, the Cats started moving. Not that Brunson was a role player. He was the MVP of the Preseason NIT and scored 25 against Temple and 22 versus Penn. This year, Brunson will be in the role that is meant for him — lead guard. He can shoot 3s, get to the basket, set up teammates and shoot from mid-range.
Phil Booth is a solid guard who can play on or off the ball but needs to improve his shooting eye, and Mikal Bridges is a swingman who excels on the break, defends extremely well and finishes with authority close to the basket. Wildcat fans will be excited to see redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo, who missed all but eight games last year due to injury but is an excellent athlete and a complete player.
Dylan Painter is another big man with skill, but he needs more strength and seasoning, so it won’t be surprising if he redshirts this season. Eric Paschall, a transfer from Fordham, will play significant minutes. Omari Spellman is the most talented big man recruit during Jay Wright’s tenure and has the potential to be an immediate interior force. The Wildcats, however, will have to wait unti the 2017-18 season to get him on the court.
Villanova has to replace two vital parts of its national title team, and that won’t be easy to do. The team’s personality will be different, and Wright understands that it will take some time for new leaders to emerge and new performers to make their contributions.
There is no doubt that the Wildcats have plenty of talent. They can play big or small. They can use many of their players at several positions. From a sheer personnel standpoint, Nova has options and should be one of the nation’s deeper and more versatile teams. The question is whether it can coalesce to the point it did last year, when the magic started long before Jenkins hit his memorable shot.