As this year’s basketball season draws near, the Villanova Wildcats strive to newly define themselves as they go into the season fresh-faced.
The faces of the Villanova Wildcats have changed significantly over the past two years, as they experienced the highs and lows of March Madness.
Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono led the way to a 2016 National Championship win that launched the Cats into the spotlight. Then, most recently, the loss of Darryl Reynolds, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, a group of 2017 graduates that led the ‘Cats through an unforgettable season with impactful performances, as they took the Big East by storm for the fourth year in a row. Unfortunately, their excellent run came to a screeching halt when the Wildcats suffered a disappointing Round of 32 loss in the NCAA Tournament.
“The end result isn’t what we wanted,” said Villanova’s Phil Booth. “But I don’t think I’d change how we prepare for each game. I think we’d come with the same mindset and just try to be the best we can.”
Two contrasting postseason results, both of which brought in a series of varying emotions.
Now, Villanova is regrouping and looking ahead to a new season.
“We lost three great players,” said guard Donte DiVincenzo. “This summer we’ve been working to find that group, and we have a great three leaders this year in Jalen [Brunson], Phil [Booth] & Mikal [Bridges], so we’re very versatile. We have a lot of guys who can play different positions so we’ll be okay.”
DiVincenzo’s teammates echoed his sentiments regarding the seniors and have been working together all year, preparing to debut a powerful, but noticeably younger, team.
Losing the three players that had such a big part in the program’s recent success seems to motivate, not frighten, the current team members. They all have an eagerness to return to the court and are ready to show off their newfound identity to the college basketball world, through many new faces and some returning ones who made tremendous strides in their game last season.
Two players, in particular, became breakout stars midway through last season, stepping up their gameplay substantially, enabling the team to win some of their toughest games last year. DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall initiated some of last year’s most memorable plays. They are primed to take an even bigger jump this season.
“I think that they were an important part of our season,” said head coach Jay Wright. “Donte and Eric really came on from the middle of last year until the end and then continued to improve over the summer. I think they’re both ready to breakthrough, again, and be really impactful players this season.”
DiVincenzo, who began his emergence by sinking a buzzer beating tip-in against the Virginia Cavaliers, had a lot to say about how he’s managed to improve and become one of the team’s most reliable guards in such a short period of time.
“The biggest thing for me last year was confidence,” DiVincenzo said. “Josh [Hart] was on me everyday, Kris [Jenkins] was on me everyday, and Darryl [Reynolds], but in particular, Josh. He built me up throughout the whole year, competing everyday at practice. Just knowing that I was playing against the candidate for the National Player of the Year built my confidence.”
Another exciting development for the team is the re-introduction of Phil Booth, who scored 20 points in the National Championship game, and the introduction of Omari Spellman, redshirt freshman whose debut was highly anticipated.
“The first thing [Booth and Spellman] bring is a lot of defense,” Bridges said. “They play hard, they bring energy and they put everything on the table for this team and they’re going to be really useful.”
Also expect them to be big contributors when it comes to piling up points onto the scoreboard.
“Both of them can really score,” echoed Wright. “We like defense, but you have to score points and those two have the ability to, create shots for themselves. When the offense breaks down at the end of the shot clock, they have a unique ability to go get shots.”
Booth is excited to return to the court while Spellman is ecstatic to make his debut as a Villanova Wildcat and show what he’s truly made of.
“I do miss the games,” said Booth. “A whole year hurts, so it’s good to be back with the team, practicing and getting the rhythm again. I’m glad to be back.”
“I want to play as hard as I can,” said Spellman. “I want to play as smart as I can and as in-sync as I can with my teammates. I want to play with pride for the University.”
A leader that everyone has repeatedly mentioned is Jalen Brunson. Despite his age, he’s consistently been called “the freshman who started as a senior.” His ability to navigate the court and take control of plays has been noted not only among basketball fans, but among basketball commentators and those in the NBA. Now a junior, his game has elevated since his arrival.
“He [Brunson] likes taking that leadership position,” praised Wright. “He’s good at it. I think you’ll see him more comfortable this year. The more pressure you put on him, the more responsibility you give him, the better he leads.”
Brunson has been a leader, despite his young age, that the whole team can count on when the going gets tough.
“He always has an aggressive point,” Booth commented. “He always knows when to shoot, when to pass, you’ll see him with the ball in his hands a lot more, probably, because Josh Hart’s gone. He probably has more of a leadership role now because he’s one of the older guys on the team now, but that’s it. Even when he came in as a freshman, he had a natural leadership about him, so I think, coming into this year, he won’t be too much different.”
In terms of all around strategy and play, the team insisted that despite last year’s early tourney exit, their mentality and strategy will not change.
“There will be no difference,” remarked DiVincenzo. “We know that we have a new journey this year and we’re trying to be the best team that we can at the end of the year, and if we take an early exit again, we know that we were the best team that we could possibly be and we’ll accept that.”
Regarding overall team gameplay, Wright likes to credit “position-less basketball” for being the advantage they have over most other collegiate teams and what will separate this year’s squad from the past Wildcats.
“We want our guys to be basketball players so hopefully everybody can defend different positions,” Wright said. “Offensively, they can play at different spots on the floor, so we want it to be an advantage in terms of us being able to defend and then we want to create mismatches offensively also.”
The team echoes these claims, saying that being an all-around player is more beneficial than honing in on their individual positions because they can all be interchangeable in case injuries were to occur during games. Having each team member able to play every position is also beneficial because they can almost customize their lineup based on the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents.
“I definitely think our style is a little bit difficult to guard,” Brunson mentioned. “I think, the way we play can be difficult for other teams, but, I mean, we have to use it to our advantage as well. On the defensive end, we have to make sure that we’re playing harder than our opponent, no matter who it is, no matter what the size is and mismatch like that, we just have to make sure we’re playing hard all the time.”
Despite the highs and lows of the past two years, the Villanova Wildcats identity has changed very little. New faces are coming to the forefront, but, in college sports, no one lasts forever.
Aside from that, it seems as though the Wildcats are going to stick to what they do best: staying motivated, staying focused and representing the blue and white.