Villanova is not Duke or Kentucky. It doesn’t have the luxury of bringing in 3-4 5-star freshmen to replace the players that left in the past summer’s draft. So, when Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman, and National Player of the Year all left The Main Line to embark on their respective careers in professional basketball, things were not looking as rosy as they did in the two summers after the ‘Cats won their first national championship in 31 years back in 2016. With the loss of four of the team’s leading contributors, expectations had to be tempered. Any fan expecting another season of 30-or-more wins was setting themselves up for disappointment.
Nonetheless, head coach Jay Wright continues to surprise the many. While the Xs-and-Os are something that only those within the confines of The Davis Center practice facility can observe, it is Wright’s philosophy and culture that the outsiders observe. Jay’s team is off to a 9-4 start after yesterday’s 2nd-half romping of UConn. While things have not been as easy as in years past, it could be much worse.
No matter what the team’s status is, its culture is founded upon attitude. They could lose 10 games in a row, and attitude would still be at the basis of everything they do. Attitude is what won them 2 national championships in 3 seasons. Don’t believe me? When UNC’s Marcus Paige connected on a double-clutch three-point shot to tie the 2016 National Championship game with 4.7 seconds left, 99.8% of all Villanova fans were without a pulse. The other .2% was Jay Wright and the players on the court. That’s because they were not worried about what they could not control. They could not control that Marcus Paige made what had the chance to be one of the most memorable shots in the history of basketball, but they could control their reaction to it. I think you all know what transpired next.
So, no Mikal Bridges, no Donte DiVincenzo, no Omari Spellman, and no Jalen Brunson. How does this team rebound from losing its four best players? It’s a very valid question. Most would not survive such a gutting. But Villanova is not most. Jay Wright keeps his players going by keeping them close. He and his program welcome new faces with open arms. He takes them in as family, and so do his players. In building such a tight-knit crew, Jay Wright builds winners because even when things are not going well, no individual wants to give up, and that’s because he wants to play for his brothers. All 14 of them.
Defending the Title
But how have things fared for the defending champions thus far? With attitude and family as the masts steering the ship, the Wildcats have been caught up in a few minor storms. But overall, the waters have been calm. The crew is composed of:
F Eric Paschall (SR)
G Phil Booth (SR)
F Saddiq Bey (FR)
F Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (SOPH)
G Joe Cremo (Grad Transfer)
G Collin Gillespie (SOPH)
G Jahvon Quinerly (FR)
F Jermaine Samuels (SOPH)
F Brandon Slater (FR)
F Cole Swider (FR)
G Peyton Heck (SR)
G Kevin Hoehn (SOPH)
G Tim Saunders (SR)
F Tim Delaney (RS-JR)
With the roster as currently constructed for the 2018-19 season, the team’s worst loss was a 78-75 decision at the University of Pennsylvania to end a streak of 25 consecutive wins in the Big-5 tournament. But the best victory was a 66-60 conclusion against #14 Florida State to capture the Advocare Invitational championship during Thanksgiving week.
Villanova is not the best team in the country right now, but things are just fine. Come March, Jay Wright’s team will be in the same boat as the 67 other teams chasing the last victory of the season.
At 9-4, I won’t lie to you and say things have been great. There are blatant issues with this team. I’ll begin with what has made this team outstanding on the offensive end of the court in recent years. Both championship teams averaged greater than 15 assists per game. This year’s team averages under 14. Simply put, the players on the court are not making the extra pass this season. That comes from a lack of trust. Recent teams have understood the importance of trusting their teammates. When you move the ball well, you trust the man you’re passing to to make the right play or make a shot. A lack of trust, which stems from this team’s youth, prevents extra ball movement, which makes the offense much less dangerous.
The teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament in each of my first three years at Villanova were all elite because they were excellent high-volume three-point shooters. On average, those three teams shot the long-ball at 38%. This year’s team is shooting it at 34%. Part of what has made the real Wildcat offense so explosive was its usage of the three-point shot and the success rate with which those shots were taken. When the shots weren’t falling, the team would struggle. This year the shots are not falling. I don’t like to make things so plain and simple, but part of the problem really is that plain and simple.
Having upperclassmen who make heavy contributions on the court truly does help teams win championships. Both championship teams had at least 2 seniors and 2 juniors in the starting lineup. This year’s team has an entire rotation composed of 2 seniors, 3 sophomores, and 3 freshmen. This team has an average of 1 year of college experience in its rotation, and that does not bode well when counting the W’s.
The one thing about this team that I believe will be a consistent positive as the season progresses is roster depth. In fact, I’m not sure that any of the three teams I’ve watched as an undergraduate were as deep as this team is. With a rotation that goes 8-9 players deep on any given day, Jay does have players who he can substitute into a game with some level of confidence, and that bodes well for a run in March.
When all is said and done, no matter where this team’s season ends, I’m not worried about Nova Nation. The program will remain strong year-in-and-year-out long after I graduate, and that’s because Jay has built his program on the wright plot of land — at the corner of attitude and family.