#5 Villanova Preview 2017-18

- Matt Cox

Key Returners:  Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall, Donte DiVincenzo
Key Losses: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds
Key Newcomers: Omari Spellman (redshirted last year), Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Collin Gillespie


Postseason Projection: 1 - 2 seed

Outlook: Over the 6-game span of Villanova's magical 2016 NCAA tournament run, the Wildcats morphed into "Supernova" in the form of an offensive juggernaut - the Cats torched opponents with an otherworldly display of 3-point shooting, cashing in on 56 of their 112 attempts from behind the arc (yup, that equates to 50% from 3 as a team!). But the haunted ghosts of Jay Wright's postseason past reappeared last March when a veteran and well coached Wisconsin team sent the Wildcats packing before the tournament’s 2nd weekend for the third time in the past four seasons (the 2016 national championship year being the lone exception). If recent history is any indication of how Jay Wright’s bunch will respond this year, just keep in mind that Nova has been either a 1 or 2-seed in each of the past four NCAA tournaments - in other words, odds are "GQ Jay" will have his team amongst the handful of serious title contenders by next March.

Shifting focus to Nova's 2017-18 prognosis, it's hard to gloss over the departures of two veteran leaders in Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins.  Both impacted the game in so many ways, routinely stuffing the box score in the 'points', 'rebounds', 'assists', and 'steals' stat columns. Hart's absence, in particular, means all eyes will now shift to crafty floor general, Jalen Brunson, who took a massive step forward in his sophomore campaign last year. Brunson seamlessly manned the lead ball handling role from Ryan Arcidiacono and quietly put together one of the most well-rounded offensive seasons in the entire country (see shooting splits of .62/.38/.88 from 2pt/3pt/FT, respectively). With Hart and Jenkins graduating, Brunson now becomes the Wildcats' unequivocal leader and will have to maintain his level of effectiveness as the focal point of Nova's offensive attack without Hart next to him on the perimeter to occupy help side defenders. So with each opponent’s top perimeter stopper likely to be pinned on Brunson night in and night out, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges will need to assert themselves as viable complementary scoring options this year, both of whom are now entering their third full (and healthy) season at the college level.

After Booth capped off his sophomore year with a clutch 20-point performance in the National Championship game against North Carolina, recurring inflammation in his knee throughout last summer - which he re-aggravated just three games into the season - kept Booth on the sidelines for almost all of the 2016-17 campaign. The good news for Wildcat fans is that Booth was actually cleared to practice toward the end of March, so all signs indicate he should be ready to go this fall. The question is will "Booth 2.0" return as his uber-efficient freshman form (.65/.49/.74 shooting splits)? Or will his sophomore slump (.42/.32/.88 shooting splits) from the 2015-16 season carry over to this year?

Bridges, on the other hand, appeared immune to any such slump last season as he quickly blossomed into one of Wright’s most efficient offensive performers.  All he did was post the nation’s 10th highest true shooting percentage, per kenpom.com, and was two rounding errors away from finishing with an unheard of .70/.40/.90 shooting stat line. Standing 6’7 and being blessed with octopus-esque arms, his most irreplaceable contributions actually come on the other end of the floor as a versatile wing defender in man-to-man situations, and the primary disruptor in Nova's half-court zone trapping schemes. Bridges, along with two of last year’s key newcomers in Donte DiVencenzo and Eric Paschall, should rotate primarily at the 3 and 4 positions, depending on how big or small Wright chooses to play against different matchups.  

Let’s just agree to forget about the big fat goose egg Bridges laid in the Wildcats round of 32 loss to Wisconsin – yikes…

Both DiVencenzo and Paschall provided much needed value in some key areas last year in their first season in Philly. DiVencenzo – dubbed as “the Big Ragu” by Gus Johnson – proved to be a sneaky good replacement to the injured Booth at the primary off-guard position, next to Brunson and Hart on the perimeter. Although he was exposed defensively a few times last season by quicker Big East guards, DiVencenzo is a serviceable athlete with decent size (6’5, 205 lbs.), making him a reliable asset on both ends of the floor - especially if he can continue to improve his long range shooting consistency (he connected on 37% of his 3s last year). Paschall should also chip in with his dirty work down low, using a burly 6’7 250 frame to bully undersized bigs in the paint. And while Villanova teams of recent memory tend to adopt a "rebound-by-committee" approach, both Paschall and Omari Spellman must emerge as reliable glass cleaners, particularly with Hart, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds all leaving town.

With all due respect to a formidable freshman class (headlined by Jermaine Samuels), Spellman is the real X-factor who has the potential to single-handedly lift Villanova's ceiling this year. A highly skilled true post player and former top-20 overall recruit, Spellman is finally free from the NCAA's [unnecessary] shackles and should be the perfect ingredient for Villanova’s “bread-and-butter” action on offense. Wright loves to initiate Nova's half-court sets from the inside-out, especially when he has a low-post scoring weapon like Spellman to work through (refer to prior years with Daniel Ochefu and JayVaugn Pinkston). And while last year's guard-heavy roster resulted in a much more perimeter-oriented scoring attack, expect a steady diet of low-block touches featuring Spellman this season. This should draw consistent attention from off-ball defenders, which will trigger a kick-out and subsequent ball rotations until the rock finds the hands of an open shooter. The key will be how well Spellman reads and reacts to these inevitable double teams. If he can prove to be a willing and accurate passer out of the post, the Wildcats' 3-point snipers should have a field day from the land of plenty.

Bottom Line: There are certainly some big shoes to fill for this year's returning core, but the “known and proven" commodities still outnumber the “unknown and uncertain”. And even with a few questions still lingering as the season approaches (Will Phil Booth return to form and stay healthy?  Can Jalen Brunson emerge as an offensive alpha? Can Omari Spellman provide consistent production on both ends on a nightly basis?), there are plenty of reasons to be bullish that Nova will contend for their 5th straight Big East crown and be right back in the thick of the national title conversation.