With Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges officially set to return for next season, Villanova’s roster is pretty locked in. Sure, there could still be a surprise late recruiting signing or (knock on wood) an off-season injury, but at this point neither of those are likely.
With several months left for speculation and debate until anything actually valid or concrete comes out, why not kick things off with the most basic question: who will make the starting line-up? The team will have a much deeper bench, so there are technically more options. However, in my opinion, there are already four players locked into the starting lineup: Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth, Mikal Briges, Omari Spellman.
Brunson has been a starter ever since he stepped onto Nova’s campus, and next year he has All-American potential. Booth and Bridges will be academic seniors as they enter their fourth year on campus, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they and Brunson are named team captains. Spellman should have a chip on his shoulder after sitting out a red-shirt season, and could be the best big man in the Big East.
By this point, you’re probably asking, “Hey moron, aren’t you forgetting a certain ‘Michael Jordan of Delaware’ who averaged 15 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in Nova’s last 5 games?” No, I haven’t forgotten about the Big Ragu, more commonly known as Villanova’s rising sophomore Donte DiVincenzo. But, and hear me out, I don’t think he should start for Villanova next season. I see that you’ve all taken out your torches and pitch forks, so let me at least prove that I understand how good DiVincenzo was, and how great he could be next year.
Why DiVincenzo Should Start Next Season
Let’s be clear, last season’s breakout performance was spectacular. Statistically, KenPom.com compared it to the freshman performances of Duke’s Luke Kennard or UConn’s Jeremy Lamb. We recapped his rookie season here, but now let’s look at how he would fit into the starting lineup next year.
While DiVincenao only started one game last season, he played starter’s minutes. At 25.5 minutes per game, good for 5th on the team, he essentially became Phil Booth’s replacement in the rotation. While point/shooting guard isn’t his natural position (he’s best playing from the wing), the additional minutes and ball-handling quickly elevated his game to another level. Heading into next year, he’ll likely again be asked to fill someone else’s shoes.
DiVincenzo would slide right into Josh Hart’s vacancy at the small forward position in the starting line-up. While that’s a big hole to fill, no one on the team is more capable than Donte to produce the points and rebounds that Hart did. No one, not even Hart, crashes the glass with the tenacity and athleticism that DiVincenzo displayed last year. Never was that more evident than with his game winning tip-in against Virginia.
While he’s not quite at Hart’s level defensively yet, that should improve through the off-season and his sophomore campaign. Considering he’d be paired with Mikal Bridges, last year’s co-Big East Defensive Player of the year, it’s unlikely he’ll ever be asked to guard the other team’s best player. In addition, DiVincenzo was 4th on the team in both steals and blocks, emphasizing his ability to use his athleticism to create offensive opportunities out of defensive possessions.
At this point, even I’m questioning how Jay Wright could consider taking him out of a game, let alone start him on the bench. But when it comes down to it, Donte and the rest of the team might be even better served if he reprises his role as the 6th man.
Why DiVincenzo Shouldn’t Start Next Season
As Jay Wright’s system has evolved over the years, the 6th man has become an invaluable source of instant offense and reliable defense. This past season, that was DiVincenzo’s role. The year before it was sophomore Phil Booth. Josh Hart spent his freshman and sophomore seasons as the first player off the bench, including the year he won the Big East Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. The point is, Nova’s 6th man has been really good.
It’s not just about having that burst off the bench, the 6th man has usually played more minutes in the game than one of the starters. Just using last year as an example, DiVincenzo was 5th in minutes and was often on the court when the game was on the line. So if being the 6th man for Nova doesn’t mean a lack of production or minutes, why not use a guy who’s done it before and can make a lot of trouble for opposing teams on both ends of the court.
The other reason this move makes sense is that it allows Jay to get an early look at game flow before making an adjustment on the court. If Jay wants to push the tempo, Donte can go in for one of the forwards. If they’re getting killed on the boards, DiVincenzo subs in for Brunson. His ability to play anywhere from the 1 to the 4 opens up a lot of options for Wright to change the flow of the game with a single substitution. That can be crucial, as we saw many times this season when the team came out flat and Jay was quick to get Donte in the game.
If Not Big Ragu, Then Who?
The only way this conversation makes sense is if there’s a viable option to replace DiVincenzo at the 3 or 4 in the starting line-up. I think it’s safe to say that rules out sophomore Dylan Painter and freshman Collin Gillespie. It’s tough to think that sophomore Tim Delaney will be ready for that role, and the same goes for freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, so they’re out too. Jermaine Samuels could be a dark horse candidate, but it’s hard to see him getting the start over DiVincenzo instead of taking over the 6th (or 7th) man role himself. That leaves us with the player I think will have his own break-out season next year, Eric Paschall.
Paschall came into Villanova’s system the same year as DiVincenzo but has seniority after his year at Fordham. Due to the lack of big men last year, he spent a lot of time patrolling the paint as the “center”. It’s not to say that he wasn’t effective down low, but his natural role is as a play-maker on the wing with the ability to play the hi-low game as either the 3 or 4. That would fit perfectly into a lineup where he and Bridges could control the wings, giving Spellman room to work down low and allowing Brunson and Booth to make plays up top.
Like DiVincenzo, Paschall is a versatile player that gives Jay Wright flexibility on both ends of the court. He can create his own shot, but he’s also shown a knack for spacing and getting into passing lanes as an outlet for driving guards. He had plenty of powerful, uncontested dunks last year that came simply from shifting to the weak side of the ball handler and giving them an outlet. On the perimeter, he wasn’t very effective with his shot (27%), but all 19 of his made threes were assisted. I’d expect those numbers to go up when his focus isn’t on the paint. On the other end of the court, he proved he can guard every position. That becomes invaluable in Villanova’s switching man defense.
DiVincenzo, and Paschall for that matter, are both very talented players that are going to play a lot of minutes next season. They’ll both be in their third year at Villanova, and Jay will rely on them to be team leaders. No matter which one of them joins the other four in the starting line-up, Villanova is going to be a Top 5 team that will be difficult for opponents to match up against. However, the added versatility and spark that DiVincenzo could provide off the bench can give the Wildcats the edge they need to capture a 5th Big East Title and make a deep run in March.
And if he starts... they’ll probably still do it.