On Wednesday, the stage was set at Madison Square Garden for Big East Media Day. With the 2017-18 season just around the corner, all 10 Big East teams met at the World’s Most Famous Arena and will do so again later in March. With men’s basketball ranked No. 1 in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll and Jalen Brunson, as well as Omari Spellman, taking home top honors—here are the top Villanova storylines from Big East Media Day:
Have No Fear, Phil Booth is Here
After a legendary team-high 20 point performance in the National Championship game against North Carolina, Phil Booth didn’t expect to have to wait as long as he did for an opportunity to follow up on that game.
Sure, he played in a handful of games last season, but it didn’t take too long for him to realize something was wrong.
"About the seventh or eighth game I missed,” said Booth, about when he realized he was going to shut things down for the 2016-17 season. "I hadn’t been practicing. Just trying to get back I knew was going to be hard. Me and Coach agreed that it probably would be best if I didn’t try to come back, it wouldn’t be a smart thing to do.”
It seemed like a constant battle between Booth’s mind and body. The desire to play was there, but his knee just never fully healed. He played through a torn meniscus during Villanova’s championship run, and it finally caught up to him.
It was the longest stretch of time in which the 6-foot-3 guard had gone without playing basketball.
Now, he assures that his knee is “feeling better than it did before it was hurt.”
While there was a bit of a scare and emerging anxiety when he sat out of the team’s Blue-White scrimmage on Oct. 7 due to tendonitis, he guarantees that fans have nothing to be scared of.
"I’m all good—just had a little tendonitis, and just sat out as a precautionary thing,” Booth said. "They chose they didn’t need me there for that, but I’m in practice, working out, and all good now.”
His teammates are happy to see him back and say that seeing him run up and down the court has been uplifting.
“He’s been here for four years,” Mikal Bridges said. "He knows everything, every play, where we’re supposed to be, offensive concepts, defensive concepts—it’s good to have another person there. It’s good to have another person there that can lead this team."
Former Redshirts on the Rise
Three former redshirt players seem to be primed for a breakout season—Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, and the much-anticipated arrival of Omari Spellman on the basketball court.
Spellman, a five-star prospect coming out of high school, last played basketball when he was a senior at St. Thomas More (Conn.). He averaged 16 points and seven rebounds then and unfortunately had his collegiate debut put on hold due to a NCAA ruling.
Now, he’ll be taking the floor in less than a month. While the NCAA decision was disappointing, Jay Wright is looking at it through an optimistic lens.
"All freshmen struggle, he came in talented but not well-conditioned,” said Wright, about Spellman. "He used last year to really get in great shape and you can tell a big difference in his game this year because of his conditioning and weight loss. He’s able to use all of his abilities.”
Spellman arrived at Villanova a shade below 270 pounds. While it was progress from his previous high school junior year weight of almost 290, he has leaned out and now comes in at a trimmed 245 pounds.
The transformation is similar to the kind Kris Jenkins underwent during his time at Villanova, and Wright hopes that the changes only benefit him.
Spellman adds a presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. He’s also capable of taking his game out to the perimeter and help stretch the floor.
While his teammates are excited for his chance to finally be able to play, some of the older veterans are also excited for DiVincenzo and Paschall.
"Not just our captains, but Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall do a great job of leading the younger guys,” Brunson said.
Paschall and DiVincenzo both saw a great amount of playing time last season, after their redshirt year in 2015-16.
Paschall added an element of athleticism inside and a certain toughness that came along with his improving ability to defend some of the bigger opposing forwards and centers out there.
As for DiVincenzo, he also gradually improved as the season unfolded, culminating in an excellent display in the Wildcats’ two NCAA Tournament games last year.
"Probably the fastest guy on our team,” said Booth, about DiVincenzo. "He’s really athletic. He does a lot, he’s a great defender too. He blocks a lot of shots for his size and he’s very active on both ends of the floor.”
The expectations are high for these guys to breakout this season, but at the end of the day, the ‘Cats will be happy with anyone.
"I think the most important thing is that we don’t care who that breakout player is,” Brunson said. "We just want the best for each other and play for each other."
There are the one-and-done type of players—the consensus top 10-ranked high school prospects that look ready to take the jump for the NBA right away, and then there are the players that come to Villanova—the ones that usually stay a while and develop over a three, four-year window.
While Kentucky and Duke seem to flaunt these flashy high school players, it appears that Wright seems to be looking for something else.
Brunson, who some deemed as a potential one-and-done player coming out of high school, now enters his third year as a Wildcat. He’s seen a couple of incoming classes arrive at Villanova and seems to have a good grasp of what’s going on.
"They’ll project you wherever they’re going to project you, but I think the way Coach Wright recruits is that he finds players that will fit into our system, fit into our style of play—the character of the guys,” said Brunson, when asked about Villanova-type players and one-and-dones. "He’s really into finding genuine character guys that aren’t going to cause problems. Coach does a great job of finding guys that blend in with us.”
For the record, Wright wants to make sure everyone knows that he doesn’t only search for players who want to stay awhile.
"I would like to get one-and-dones, but I just can't get them to come,” Wright said, laughing. “Villanova is the type of school that if you’re going to be a one-and-done, you’re probably better off going somewhere else to do it…I just have to be honest and say, a lot of those one-and-done guys we recruited, we just didn’t get ‘em. I want ‘em. I still want ‘em.”
As for the one-and-done rule itself, and the recent recruiting news that has shaken up the NCAA, he has a couple of thoughts on amateurism and pro sports.
He doesn’t deny that the current system in place could be better.
“I just wish the rule was if you’re good enough to get paid to play college basketball out of high school, you can get paid to play basketball,” Wright said. "If you’re going to choose to go to college and going to get an education, you’ll have to be there at least three years.”
He acknowledges that his suggestions aren’t going to solve everything, but says “it’s a start.” He expressed a desire of separating amateur college basketball and professional basketball—whether that be the NBA, G-League, or overseas.
According to Wright, if a player is talented enough to play professionally and want to make money—or need to make money in order to support their families—they should be able to go right away. If players want to go to college, get an education, and experience campus life, they should have to make at least a three-year commitment to attending school.
"I think you’ve gotta let kids that have a need to make money at that age—and are talented enough that someone would pay them—let them go make money,” he said. "So when people watch college basketball, they know I’m watching kids that want to be in college. When I watch the G-League, I see there’s a guy that wants to make a living. I respect that.”
NBA Draft 2018?
Outside of a couple of walk-ons, Villanova doesn’t have any senior players. Usually that means there’s nothing to worry about, as it’ll simply be a matter of reloading for the following season. Except this time around, Brunson and Bridges are both on the NBA radar heading into this year.
They were both in the conversation during last season, and now that chatter has started up again with a new college basketball season around the corner.
"I really don’t think about it, because that’s not going to help me or my team out,” said Bridges, about his NBA prospects. "I just feel like my job right now—i’m still in college, I’m not worrying about the NBA. I’m here to lead this team, keep winning, and playing as hard as we can.”
As a redshirt sophomore this past season, Bridges averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. Inside the arc, he was one of the most efficient scorers inside. His 69.4 percent conversion rate on two-point shots was among the top 10 in the country. Defensively, he’s one of the best at creating steals in the Big East and shared the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year title with former teammate Josh Hart and Creighton’s Khyri Thomas.
As for his teammate, Brunson, the NBA seems to have always been a topic that surrounds him with each passing offseason. An early 2018 Mock Draft at CBS Sports also has him going at the tail end of the first round.
Last season, he averaged 14.7 points and a team-high 4.1 assists per game. He was an unanimous All-Big East First Team selection.
The junior point guard had been aiming to get his degree by the end of this year, finishing school early. Until then, he’s not giving the NBA too much thought.
"I expect to graduate most importantly,” Brunson said. "I talk to my mom and dad all the time, and obviously I want to play in the NBA—that’s my goal, but the NBA isn’t going anywhere. I just want to get my degree. I just want to fulfill that part first, before I try doing anything else."
Putting Last Year in the Past
Coming off of a National Championship run and an extensive victory tour, Villanova went down like many past champions before them—unable to repeat.
The task of defending a title is without a doubt, tough. Over the last four decades, we have only seen repeat champions twice. The odds seemed to slowly stack against them as a NCAA ruling made Spellman ineligible, Booth and Tim Delaney succumbed to injuries, and limited size meant that Villanova mostly had a 6-foot-8 player as its tallest Wildcat on the court. Add a shortened rotation somewhere in the mix.
"I know fans didn’t like the result of our NCAA Tournament run, I didn’t like that either, but as I look back at the season, we lost two starters in Phil Booth and Omari Spellman—our guys really stepped up and had a great year,” Wright said. "We don’t judge ourselves with how we do in the NCAA Tournament, we get that everyone else does, but when we look back at our season, we thought we had a great year.”
With all that adversity, Villanova achieved a 32-4 record and the top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats also won their fourth-straight Big East regular season title and their second tournament championship since conference realignment. They watched Josh Hart be named conference Player of the Year, All-American, and become an eventual first round draftee.
As impressive as it was, there was still something aching from getting booted from the Big Dance in the Round of 32—especially when it was against a Wisconsin team that many felt should have been seeded higher. For a moment, past nightmares reemerged, as a chorus of Round of 32 jokes made their way back. Just anything but going down in the first weekend would have been palatable—maybe.
"I won a national championship, and I lost in the first weekend—it is what it is,” Brunson said of his experiences over the last two years. "You win, you’re on the top of the mountain. When you lose, you’re down there looking up at the national champion like that’s where you want to be. The thing is, we did what we could do last year. We just tried to be the best that we could be at the end of the year, we don’t really focus on the result as a team, we don’t let it define us.”
As the new season approaches, the ‘Cats are projected to be kings of the Big East once again.
With returning starters in Brunson, Bridges, and Booth, as well as key rotational players like DiVincenzo, Paschall, and Painter—Villanova appears to be in good shape.
The arrivals of Spellman, Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will also help and provide depth, which certainly won’t be issue this time around. Neither will size.
Wright expects to use a number of different combinations and is excited with the team’s versatility. He is happy that guys are able to play a number of different positions, and he will give different looks on the court.
"We still have some guys that need to prove themselves,” Wright said. "Mikal, Jalen, Phil—they’ve been around, they’ve proven themselves. I think Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall are ready to come on the scene. Omari has to prove himself, and our freshmen have to prove themselves. As a team, we have to prove that we’re worthy of the accolades that we’re getting in the preseason."