Let’s get one thing straight from the get go: I’m not saying these things WILL happen. I’m not even saying that they’re likely to happen. But I am saying they could happen. And that’s what the preseason is all about. Trying to figure out what’s possible before reality starts to set in and we throw everything out the window.
Below are my BOLD predictions for the upcoming season. You likely won’t agree with most of them, or even half of them... maybe just one of them. However, there’s no denying that everything you’re about to read has a non-zero chance of happening. And trust me, if all of this does come to pass, this is going to be one hell of a season.
All I ask is that you keep this in the back of your mind: In 2015, people made the “bold” prediction that a team which hadn’t strung together two NCAA victories in seven years could win the national championship for the first time in over three decades. That one worked out pretty well.
Jalen Brunson will not lead Villanova in scoring this season
Sure, let’s start out with a gut punch. How could I possibly say that the guy who is the captain of our team, possibly best player, and highest returning scorer by almost 5 points per game not be the favorite to be our leading point scorer? Simple, that’s not what Villanova point guards do (anymore).
Look at his predecessor, Ryan Arcidiacono. Arch was a four year captain, a Big East POY, and the Final Four MOP. And yet, in all four years at Nova, Arch never led the team in scoring. In fact, the last time Villanova’s starting point guard was also their leading scorer was Malik Wayns in the not to be spoken of season of 2011-2012.
Villanova Leading Scorers 2011-17
Outside of Josh Hart’s All-American season last year, Wayns had the highest points per game in the past six seasons by more than two points. That’s because there wasn’t a lot of finishers on that team, and so Wayns had to carry a lot of the scoring burden alone. That won’t be the case this season.
While Brunson will surely get plenty of baskets, his primary role will be to facilitate the offense and get others involved. And in case you didn’t know, he’s REALLY good at that. Look for the points that Hart and Jenkins put up last season to go to players like Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman. If Nova has another great season, my money is on one of those four to lead the team in scoring.
Phil Booth will finish in the team’s Top 4 for total rebounds
At least I had some stats to back that last one up, but I completely get if you’re balking at this one. In his sophomore season, Booth hit his career high of 2.1 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, that put him 7th on the team. Also, there’s that whole thing where he’d have to out-rebound at least one of the following: Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, and Omari Spellman.
So where the hell am I coming from with this? Well I’m banking on a little inside information, even if it’s a year old. At the beginning of last season I sat down with Darryl Reynolds and asked him who was challenging him on the boards in practice. He thought for a second and said that Donte and Eric were both really good, but the guy that was beating him in the rebounding competitions was Phil Booth. Booth had worked like a beast all off-season to bounce back from surgery and be ready for the season. Reynolds said not only did it show, but it had manifested in a tenacity on the boards.
We already know that Booth is a terrific defender, but if he can add this aspect to his game, that’d be huge. I’m anticipating that he attacks this preseason the same way he did last, and that he’ll be more than ready after sitting out almost all of last year. There’s a ton of rebounds on the table with Hart, Jenkins, and Reynolds leaving, and Booth is going to have the minutes and opportunity to have a real shot at making an impact on the boards. As long as he’s healthy, it’s completely possible that Booth’s game continues to grow on both sides of the ball.
Eric Paschall will finish Top 3 on the team in scoring and rebounding
The first time I saw Paschall on the court was the warm-ups before the preseason blue-white scrimmage back in 2015. My first thought was, “Oh cool, they’re letting some of the football players warm up with the guys.” Then I realized that he was the newest member of the team, and got really, REALLY, excited. But then he had to sit out a year. Then, due to injuries, he was forced to play a position that he hadn’t been preparing for that entire previous season.
Now, Paschall is entering a season finally having a year under his belt in the role he’ll likely play all year. It’s the undersized power forward role that Kris Jenkins played last season, just without the emphasis on massive amounts of three point shooting.
Regardless of whether or not he cracks the starting line-up this season (for the record, I think he should), he’s likely to see a significant amount of time this year playing alongside both Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman. Paschall hasn’t had that kind of size and skill around him before, and it’s really going to open up the front court and allow his superior athleticism to take over. Seriously, if he gets a head of steam behind him on the way to the basket, just get out the way! That kind of power inside is going to lead to a lot of easy boards and baskets, and he’ll be one of the team’s best in both categories.
Mikal Bridges will improve all his major per game stats for a second year
Let’s break this one down. First, there are five “major” stat categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. It’s not uncommon for players to improve their totals in these stats year after year as they get more playing time and experience. However, it’s much more difficult when you look at them on a per game basis. That means the player has to perform better, not just get more opportunity.
For Bridges, he avoided the “sophomore slump” and improved his per game stats in all five areas this past season:
Mikal Bridges Per Game Stats
Making this kind of improvement over one season is pretty great. But to do it twice in your first three seasons, that doesn’t happen very often. In fact, since taking over at Villanova, Jay Wright has only had two players improve all of their major per game stats in both their sophomore and junior seasons: James Bell and Corey Fisher. You’ll notice that there are some decidedly huge names missing from that list, which just goes to show how difficult it is to see that kind of consistent all-around improvement.
But Mikal Bridges is exactly the type of player that’s capable of improving every aspect of his game. That says a lot considering that last year he led the team in blocks and steals, was third in rebounds, and fourth in assists and points. He just has so much talent and potential that I think he’s capable of making another leap forward. That’s probably why a number of NBA Draft sites have him going in the middle of the first round this year.
Bridges will likely be one of the captains of this year’s team. He may not be as vocal in the huddle as Jalen Brunson or Phil Booth, but he’s absolutely going to set an example on the court for his teammates. I’m expecting him to step up in a big way, and possibly be the MVP of this year’s team when it’s all said and done.
Donte DiVincenzo will win MVP of the Battle For Atlantis
The Battle for Atlantis will make up three of Villanova’s first six games of the season, so it’s safe to say that the team will still be “settling in”. Just about everyone is going to be in some type of new role this season. Brunson, while already being the floor general, will be getting his first shot at leading the team as an official captain. Booth will be coming back from injury and also taking on a leadership role. The same for Bridges. Paschall will finally be getting back to his role as a wing, while integrating some post play. Painter and Delaney will be looking to show improvement in the post, while Spellman and the rest of the rookies will be getting their first real taste of Villanova basketball.
And then there’s DiVincenzo. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he’s not going to have the additional pressure of leadership and he’s already spent two years in the system, so he knows the ropes. He’s the one guy who will basically be picking up right where he left off last season. And where he left off was going buck wild on the basketball court. In his final five games last season, he averaged 15 PPG and shot 65% from beyond the arc. He also averaged 7.4 boards per game over that stretch, and KenPom.com named him team MVP in two of those five games.
So what does that mean for this season? With the amount of freedom Jay is going to give DiVincenzo and his nose for the ball, I think he’s going to put on a show early on. That doesn’t mean he falls off during the season, I just think of anyone on the team he’s the most likely to hit the ground running while the rest of the team catches up. He might not be the best player on the team by the end of the season, but he’s surely going to be one of the most fun to watch.
Omari Spellman will average over nine rebounds per game
What’s the matter Brendan, couldn’t go for double digits? I thought these were BOLD predictions?!? Ok, I’m hedging a little here. I actually was going to say he’d average double digit rebounds, but then I did some research. It turns out that no Villanova player under Jay Wright has EVER averaged double digit rebounds for a season. In fact, Brooks Sales was the only player to average at least nine rebounds per game, back in the head coaches first season on the main line.
Wright puts such an emphasis on everyone going after rebounds that boards are often spread around to the point where no one is going to come close to averaging double digits. However, with the one in four out system that the Wildcats have run the past few seasons, the one in now has a chance to hit those lofty numbers. The closest player since Sales was Daniel Ochefu in 2015, when the big man averaged 8.5 rebounds in 24 minutes per game. That is where I think Spellman is going to have his opportunity.
For as great as Ochefu was, he always seemed to be limited by the minutes he could stay in the game. Even in the Championship season, he averaged under 24 minutes. I think Spellman has the opportunity to grab a much larger chunk of minutes, giving him the opportunity to get his hands on a few more rebounds. Sure, he’s young and it generally takes big men a bit longer to get going at the college level. But Omari already has a year in the system and he’s possibly the most polished rookie big man to come to campus since Jason Fraser. I’m betting on a big year for the big man. Omari is free!
Tim Delaney will play in at least half the games this season
Before anyone reads too much into this one, I have to admit this is 100% speculation/optimism. The facts are the facts. Since arriving on campus, Delaney has had three hip surgeries. Most grandparents haven’t had three hip surgeries, let alone red shirt sophomore D1 basketball players.
That said, Delaney came to Villanova with the skills to play a stretch four. If he’s healthy, he could still carve out a small role in giving some of the front court starters a quick blow. It’s important to note that last season it was Delaney, not Painter, that was coming off the bench first and was looking like the big man ready to contribute early in the season.
We all know this is going to come down to health, and no one is going to be surprised if Tim’s days competing at this level are over. But I have faith in him as a fighter, and in the AMAZING results that Nova’s training staff has produced in the years I’ve followed the team. Bottom line, if Delaney can be a depth piece this season, it makes the entire team better.
Dylan Painter will win the team’s Most Improved Player award
Painter started showing some of his potential late in the season, but early on he didn’t see much playing time. In fact, other than coming into a blowout or subbing in for the final seconds before the half, he rarely saw the court. But there’s something you may not have known about that season for Painter. He wasn’t supposed to play at all last season.
While it didn’t come out until much later, the original plan was to red-shirt Painter last season. Not only would this help the big man get up to speed with the college game, but it would also sync his basketball career with Villanova’s 5 year Masters in Engineering program that Painter is enrolled in. Then, Spellman was out of the picture and the front court was left with Reynolds, some guard/forwards, and a few rookies. More importantly, none of those options were true centers. Already short handed, Wright had no choice but to keep Painter on the bench as a reserve instead of giving him the red-shirt year.
So now with a year under his belt and some quality game time to boot, Painter is set to take a big step forward. It’s the first time that he’s heading into the year knowing what his role is and what’s expected of him. Not only will he be Spellman’s primary backup, but the two will likely be going head to head in practice all season. With that level of competition, Painter is going to have all the opportunity in the world to make the jump from the end of the bench to a consistent role player this season.
Jermaine Samuels will have at least two double-doubles this season
None of this year’s newcomers were going to come close to the hype train that is the Omari Spellman Express (woot-woot!), but Samuels has been the next most talked about rookie. This kid has a great motor, high athleticism, and should see significant minutes off the bench this season. In fact, with a number of “warm-up” games early in the season, Samuels should get a lot of opportunity early on to show what he can do.
Based on his skills as a scorer and rebounder, I think it’s very possible for him to put up double-double games more than once. Yes, that would be quite the feat considering that in the last five years only Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo have been able to put up a double-double in their freshman season. Even then, they each only did it once. I’m calling it now, Samuels does it twice.
Collin Gillespie will finish Top 5 on the team in assists per game
The early reports from practice are that Collin Gillespie has retained the hot hand he had his senior season in the Philadelphia Catholic League and brought it with him to the Main Line. Gillespie came in as a three star recruit, but that ranking doesn’t really take into account the ridiculous Championship run Gillespie went on last year. While he doesn’t necessarily have the same skill set, I think this kid’s ceiling is somewhere between Ryan Arcidiacono and Darrun Hilliard.
Bottom line is he’s another one of Jay’s diamond in the rough finds, and he’s going to get into the rotation this year. But it’s not just because of his skill set, it’s also because Jay knows he currently doesn’t have another ball handler coming in next season. Gillespie is going to need to know how to run the team from both the PG and SG positions, and he’s going to need to learn it this year.
It’s not crazy to think that Gillespie could end up with 15-20 minutes per game this season, and he’ll likely spend a good chunk of that time as the secondary ball handler. Last season, Villanova had five players that averaged two or more assists per game. If young Collin can average at least 15 minutes this season as a ball handler, he’s going to land himself in the Top 5.
Dahmir Cosby-Roundtree is going to come up big late in the season
Between Spellman, Bridges, Paschall, and Painter, DCR has a lot of teammates that are in front of him for minutes this season. Add that to the normal challenges of being a big man transitioning to the college game, and this may end up being a quiet start to the young forward’s career at Nova. And let’s not forget, a red-shirt year wouldn’t be completely surprising either.
However, every season we seem to hit a game, or a stretch of games, in which fouls or injuries require Jay to expand the rotation down the bench. Time and time again, we’ve seen young Villanova bigs come through when the team needed them to step up. Reynolds in 2016 when Ochefu went down for a stretch. Paschall when Spellman was ruled out last season. Painter when Reynolds was injured. And despite having a deeper front court now than Villanova has had in a while, I think DCR is going to add his name to that list. In fact, I bet he’s going to show us something to get excited about for 2019.