There are very few programs in the country who can match the consistency of the Villanova Wildcats.
Last season, the ‘Cats lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to the Wisconsin Badgers, but won their fourth straight regular-season Big East title and captured the conference tournament crown in impressive fashion with a blowout win over Creighton at MSG.
Without the versatile Josh Hart and 2016 National Championship hero Kris Jenkins, Jay Wright is looking for Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and their experience to carry them to yet another 30+ win season.
Record: 32-4 overall, 15-3 in conference
Key Returnees: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall
Newcomers: Omari Spellman (redshirt F) Jermaine Samuels (four-star SF), Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (four-star PF), Collin Gillespie (two-star PG)
Departures: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds
1. Does DiVincenzo make a massive leap?
Because the Wildcats are losing two of their top three scorers, including one of the best players in the country in Hart, they need someone to take a massive leap and become Brunson’s sidekick.
Donte DiVincenzo will be the answer.
The 6’5″ guard from Delaware averaged 8.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 25.5 minutes per game last season, but should see nearly all his numbers improve drastically in 2017-18. DiVincenzo showed flashes of brilliance towards the end of his sophomore campaign as he scored 25 in the Big East Tournament against St. John’s, 21 in Nova’s opening round NCAA Tournament win over Mt. St. Mary’s and 15 points in a second-round loss to Wisconsin.
DiVincenzo also had two three-game stretches during conference play when he scored 10+ points.
His athleticism, shooting ability, ball handling skills and ability to defend both guard spots makes DiVincenzo an early favorite for Most Improved Player in the Big East.
If he becomes more consistent on a game-by-game basis, improves his playmaking and raises his free throw percentage (70), he might turn in one of the most impressive breakthrough seasons in college hoops.
2. Will Brunson reach All-American status?
Brunson is expected to be the best player on Villanova’s roster and a top two player, at the very least, in the Big East Conference as a whole.
But will he receive more national recognition?
The point guard’s skills and leadership were undervalued last year due to the presence of Hart and Jenkins, but this preseason, Brunson was selected by Big East coaches as the Preseason Player of the Year in the conference and was chosen as a Second Team All-American by ESPN.com.
Brunson averaged 14.7 points, 4.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds, while shooting 54 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc. He picks his spots on the floor and makes sure to involve his teammates with crisp passing and smart decision making.
I personally think Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett is going to win Player of the Year in the conference, but that doesn’t mean Brunson’s season will fly under the radar. He is as important to Villanova as any player in the nation is to his respective team.
3. Can Villanova overcome the loss of three leaders?
While Brunson was Nova’s true point guard and main ball handler last year, Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds were the leaders back on-and-off the floor. The Wildcats leaned on Hart in the biggest and most clutch situations, Jenkins spaced the floor with his ability to knock down shots from downtown and Reynolds did all the little things that don’t show up on the box score.
So where will the leadership come from in 2017-18?
Well, obviously Brunson is going to play a prominent role, but we should also expect DiVicenzo, Bridges, Booth (despite not playing last season) and Paschall to all pitch in.
The good news is Villanova dealt with a similar problem recently.
After winning the National Championship in 2016, the Wildcats lost their four-year point guard Ryan Arcidicano and their only true post player in Daniel Ochefu. It took some time for the 2016-17 Wildcats to adjust to their new leadership roles — Hart said so at Big East Media Day at MSG — but the growing pains paid off, as they were atop the Big East for the entirety of the season and earned yet another berth to the Big Dance.
The Wildcats’ team may follow a similar trend this year: they may be dealing with adjustment concerns behind closed doors early in the year, but they’re talent, depth, experience and continuity will keep them cruising through the non-conference portion of their schedule.