VILLANOVA, Pa. — It’s a new and different college basketball season and nowhere is that more evident than at Villanova, which won its second NCAA title in three years in April.
Four Wildcats, each with eligibility remaining, were chosen in June’s NBA draft, the most in school history.
Coach Jay Wright, who has seen his best teams benefit from experience, suddenly faces an unusual rebuilding effort.
“This year is a real transitional year,” Wright said after a recent practice. “It’s gonna test everybody. We haven’t had a year where we have two dominant seniors and really everyone else is unproven.
“This is just rare for us. It brings me back to our early days here.”
Wright, in his 18th season as Villanova’s coach, guided the Wildcats to one Final Four and one Big East title his first dozen years.
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Villanova’s sustained success since makes it more prepared to cope with such a major roster overhaul.
“Our culture is stronger,” Wright said.
So is the Wildcats’ talent, which is why they’ll still be regarded as a Big East title favorite and NCAA tournament contender.
It centers around 6-3 guard Phil Booth and 6-8 forward Eric Paschall. The seniors are returning starters, with Booth having supplied 10.0 points per game last season and Paschall 10.6 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“Were happy for our new journey,” said Paschall, whose 24-point effort in the NCAA semifinals against Kansas featured 10-for-11 shooting.
“It’s a lot different than what we had the last few years, when we had a bunch of veteran guys. Now it’s a new team. We’ll see where that takes us this year.”
Villanova hosts Morgan State in its opener Nov. 6. But more eyes will be on its Nov. 14 NCAA title-game rematch with Michigan at Finneran Pavilion.
The Wildcats will continue to aim high, said Booth, a returning captain, though talk of titles has never been in their vocabulary.
“The good thing is, with this team, even in the past, we never made goals for the season,” Booth said.
“Our motto is to try to get better every day, to come into practice in the morning and work on everything we can. That’s even more important with this young team because there’s so much to learn.”
The only other returnees who averaged more than 10 minutes per game last year are sophomore guard Collin Gillespie and 6-9 fellow sophomore Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who posted a 77.9 field-goal percentage.
Graduate transfer Joe Cremo, who averaged 17.8 points per game at Albany last year, provides additional experience.
“The real challenge for us this year is how quickly can we get these young guys indoctrinated into our program,” Wright said, “and the sophomores like Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, those guys we didn’t count on them having to be ready this year right away.
“We’re usually patient with them. Now we can’t be so patient. We’ve got to try to get them ready as quickly as possible. Even the freshmen, a lot of them are gonna get thrown right into the fire.”
Those freshmen seem particularly capable of not getting burned once they do, which is a sign of how Villanova’s national stature has grown with its pair of NCAA titles.
In particular, Jahvon Quinerly, the 6-1 guard from Hackensack, N.J., seems poised to make a quick impact.
“Javon Quinerly is a jet, an absolute jet,” Wright said. “We haven’t had a guy like that.
“As a really highly touted kid, he has come in here and impressed everybody with his humility and his coachability.”
He’ll give Wright options in the backcourt with the versatile Booth and Gillespie.
Villanova may have a hard time repeating the three-point ability at every position that keyed last year’s 36-4 finish. But Villanova’s biggest challenge may be developing the defensive determination and rebounding prowess that, typically, come with age.
This year, the Wildcats don’t have a lot of that. Even last year they were late bloomers in those categories.
“I think what was underrated was how well we defended and rebounded by the end of the year,” Wright said of last season. “That’s gonna take us some time. Last year we had five guys who were experienced so we could always get five good defensive players on the court. Omari (Spellman) was the young guy, the freshmen, but really, by the end of the year, he was one of our best defensive players. Right now, this year, we have two. So that’s where we really have to grow.’’
Despite the sudden influx of youth and need for ready-and-able players, Wright doesn’t plan to alter the way Villanova approaches recruiting or player development after last year’s foursome – Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Spellman – darted off to the NBA.
“We’re trying to find that delicate balance,” he said. “We still get guys who want to be in college. Because we do that, when we get hit with a year losing four guys early, we might not be as prepared to come back right away. It might take this team some time, maybe until the end of the year. But then we should have some good solid veterans again.
“We’re just not built like the Dukes and Kentuckys, who are used to doing it. We felt we would lose Mikal and Jalen this year even though both of them had another year. The real reason we lost them was because they graduated. Those guys liked college.”
DiVincenzo, who was Big East Sixth Man of the Year and Final Four MVP as a redshirt sophomore, and redshirt freshman Spellman took advantage of the opportunities afforded after stellar seasons.
The four were among the first 33 picks in the NBA draft, which will certainly make future Villanova recruits take notice.
“We have to make sure we don’t change the way we recruit,” Wright said. “Losing those four guys makes it tempting to go get a one-and-done guy to replace them, when we already have guys in the program that are coming up behind them. They’re just not on that level yet and we weren’t counting on them yet and now they’re thrown in there.
“So we might take a little step back in terms of experience early in the year but, hopefully, by the end of the year we’ll be a good team. We’d rather do that and stay committed to our guys and stay true to our culture than try to get a quick fix.”
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