This year is going to be different. Jay Wright LOVES his seniors. This season, outside of a few walk-ons, the Villanova Wildcats don’t have any...will that impact this team’s dynamic?
In recent years, Villanova has had great senior leadership.
Just look at the National Championship run, the Wildcats had Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, two guys with a combined six years of playing the role as captain. In Arcidiacono's case, he was captain since he was just a freshman, and while Ochefu didn’t join him until later, it didn’t stop him from being vocal in the locker room.
Their dedication to the program culminated into a storybook finish in 2016, where they became top players in the conference and brought Villanova to its first-ever No. 1 ranking—and above all--a national title.
Following one of the biggest years for ‘Nova Nation, came senior leaders in Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds--the winningest class in program history. They went a combined 129 wins (!), with just 17 losses. As a matter of fact, that is the 10th-most wins ever by a Division I program in a four-year time period.
Clearly, there’s some big shoes to fill here.
During this two-year stretch, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, and Jalen Brunson were key, complementary pieces to those senior leaders that came before them. Like the class of 2017, they have never lost a Big 5 game. They also were Big East regular season champs all the way through. Now, this Triple-B Threat will be the face of this year’s Wildcats.
This year’s captains--Booth, Bridges, and Brunson--are looking well-equipped and ready to take on this leadership role. Even though they aren’t listed as seniors, they’re giving no cause for concern when it comes to providing leadership.
“Darryl Reynolds, Kris Jenkins, and Josh Hart were all great college players,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “In total, we’ve lost five significant contributors to a national championship and five great men, but yet the expectations are the same for this season…They have to go out and prove it.”
They have stepped up on the court, and their play has certainly spoke for itself. Now, they’re taking an even greater part in this team. Despite their successes on the basketball court, can the Triple-B Threat continue on that great tradition of leadership, despite being only juniors?
Brunson, who has started in every game since his arrival in 2015, is ready to take that next great step not only on the court, but also in his mindset.
“It was a role that I wasn’t used to, but I think Coach Wright knows that I would do whatever it took to win,” Brunson said. “Just understanding what the team needed and how I needed to play in order to be effective on this team. It really did humble me, and I’m definitely excited about the opportunity to lead them now. It’s something I’ve always wanted--something I’ve been able to do.”
His frequent trips home over the summer to be with his tight-knit family keeps him grounded, he says. Going home to practice with his father, and sometimes his mother, has kept him well in touch with his roots and helps maintain his humbled focus.
As for his teammate, Booth, he already has his team’s respect. Booth’s lionheart effort in playing through the pain his sophomore year earned the admiration of his teammates. While he couldn’t play most of last season, his comeback has the locker room even more fired up.
“He’s bringing back his leadership, which is huge for us,” Brunson said, about Booth. “Plain and simple, he has such experience and I wholeheartedly respect him.”
Despite a team-high 20 points in the 2016 National Championship game--one that was overshadowed due to Jenkins overwhelming shot--we haven't even seen him at his best yet.
Flashing back to Booth’s freshman year, he shot a stupendous 48.5 percent from deep. Against the Tar Heels in the National Championship, Booth scored a team-high 20 on 6-of-7 shooting, imagine if he can consistently dial in that type of play now that he’s healthy?
“Booth is the most well liked and respected player, therefore providing himself as a concrete leader,” Wright said.
As for the third member of the trio of captains, Bridges is a great defensive player. This year, he aims to be much more of a scorer too.
Some people doubt Bridges ability to score, since he’s widely known for his defensive prowess. The 6-7 forward has been a real find on that end of the court ever since his redshirt freshman year for the Wildcats. The reigning co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year is primed to take his game up a notch.
The seasoned pair of Big East accolade winners, Bridges and Brunson, couldn't be more of a perfect two-set to fill the gap left behind the leaders that came before them.
“Mikal and Jalen haven’t lost games really,” Wright said. “In fact, I don't think they’ve lost back-to-back games. They’re experienced, but you’re right…they’re not seniors. So that’s something that I think will impact us early in the season, but I know we are going to learn to adjust quickly in that our juniors are extremely talented and intelligent young men.”
Brunson echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“Coach Wright is very confident in Phil, Mikal, and I as captains, even without senior leadership,” Brunson said. “We’re just excited to be able to show our leadership to Coach, and we want to prove to our teammates that we want to be the best we can be everyday.”
They will look to lead the Wildcats on the court, letting their play set the tone, while adding a presence in the huddle. As they focus on taking care of business on the court, in Bridges and Brunson’s case, they’ll have to block out some off-court chatter, and not just the noise from opposing fans. They will have to specifically ignore the hovering NBA conversation.
However, they aren’t the only ones on the professional radar, as their younger teammate, Omari Spellman, has also had a bit of chatter.
The Ohio native is officially free. The 5-star Villanova recruit was unable to play his freshman year...in consequence of deeper details that are irrelevant at this point. Now eligible to play, Spellman’s preseason Big East Freshman of the Year title has only added to the hype.
“Let’s face it, the kid’s nice,” said Wright, about Spellman. “We haven’t had a big guy like Omari, who could be this successful in his career. He is not at the point where Daniel Ochefu was at the end of his career, but as far as the beginning of this career--he is the most talented young forward that we’ve had.”
A leaner Spellman should be ready to do some damage on the court and add that tough frontcourt presence.
As he is yet to log a single minute of collegiate basketball, he’s not totally engrossed in the NBA radar unlike Brunson and Booth.
There is a great possibility that the two captains play their final season on the Main Line. Their presence in a couple of different mock drafts isn’t helping either.
CBS Sports has Brunson going No. 28, while Bleacher Report has Bridges projected to go 28th overall.
As Villanova fans fear that this might be the final season in which they don the blue and white, they can be assured that the NBA won’t be affecting their play on the court, nor is it bothering the rest of the team.
“We do have NBA scouts at every practice,” Wright said. “I think they’re just used to it. I feel like they’ve been around it enough.”
The focus has been on the season and the guys in the locker room, when a freshman has that engrained in his head already, things seem pretty good for the Wildcats’ team dynamic.
“I want to play as hard as I can,” Spellman said. “I want to play with my teammates. If that's gonna get me to the NBA, great. If it doesn’t...always next year.”
Brunson and Bridges only echoed their teammate’s words. They acknowledge that the NBA question will follow them wherever they go this season, and they don’t plan to get caught up in that anytime soon.
For now, their plans are to lead the team—along with Booth—as they strive for the greater goal of victories and titles. These guys are ready to lead and hopefully it can only bring more banners to Villanova’s name, the rest will come later.