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Can Villanova Basketball Defend their National Championship?

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How will the young ‘Cats defense hold up in another title run?

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Michigan vs Villanova Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Villanova was one of the best defensive teams in the nation. They had the 11th best defensive efficiency of the major conference teams. This was accomplished through intelligence, athleticism, and good old fashioned teamwork. Many of the players that made this defense a success have moved on to their professional careers, leaving Jay Wright with a new challenge: getting this next group ready to compete. Let’s take a dive into the scope and depth of this challenge is, and what solutions we might see.

Holes Left Open

Let’s start with the obvious: Mikal Bridges. Not only did Bridges post the second best defensive rating on the team, he was the point man for Villanova’s infamous 1-2-2 Viking press. This ¾ court press is crucial to slowing down and disrupting an opponent’s offense. Bridges was also one of the only players in the country who could legitimately defend 1-5, fitting in with the team’s high volume of switching. Now, Jay needs to find the right man to lead the press as well as find a new method to help on screens.

Next on the list is Omari Spellman, who’s rim protection was invaluable last season. The red-shirt freshman had the second most defensive win shares for the Cats, earned mostly through guarding multiple positions and providing a deterrent for dribble penetration. Coach Wright will need to figure out how to replace this human tank in order to balance out his defense.

Donte Divincenzo was an incredible defensive presence all year. His speed and agility allowed him to keep pace with defenders, work around screens, and shut down his assignment. His man-to-man defense helped keep star guards under control and his all-out effort will be truly missed. Now, Villanova must replace their third best defender by win shares in order to stay competitive without the ball.

Who Can Fill Them

Finding another disproportionate human like Bridges will be difficult. It’s not every day that a 6’7” guard with a 7’1” wingspan walks through the door. Although he may not start, a logical filler would be Brandon Slater. The 4-star recruit is the same height as Bridges and still has an impressive wingspan. Obviously it’s not as unnatural as the number 10 overall pick, but it’s an idea. He has been touted as an excellent 3-and-D prospect, and from the scouting report is ready to put in the work at that position so it only seems logical that he be the next man up. He may not be in the starting lineup, and he might not be comfortable in that spot just yet, but give it a few months and he might just surprise you.

The rim protection provided by Omari Spellman was the final piece that rounded out last year’s fantastic defense. Now, there’s not real bonafide rim protector on the roster. There are many unknowns and many players who can fill this role. Cole Swider has the height and athleticism, but his scouting report makes it doubtful. Dylan Painter has the height, but not the athleticism. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree is probably the best option. He has the height and the athleticism, he’s had a year to learn how to play defense in college, and he’s got a year with John Shackleton under his belt. Playing Eric Paschall at the 5 is another option, but even he needs his rest. If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on Dhamir getting more playing time in order to protect the paint.

Donte’s position is actually the one that I am most worried about. Joe Cremo seems most likely to take his place. Cremo was in the 29th percentile nationally last year in points allowed per possession. He was excellent when defending in isolation, however he struggled when closing out the 3 point line and defending the pick-and-roll. Some of this could be attributed to his teammates failing to fulfill their role, but I’m going to remain cautious. My biggest fear is if Cremo fails to produce, there are not many players who can help step up. Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly, and Collin Gillespie are all too small to fill this role, while I would like Eric Paschall and Brandon Slater to defend different positions. It’s hard to replace a 42” vertical and 10.72 second lane agility time, so we’ll see what Jay decides to do with this.

Outlook

Don’t expect this year’s defense to be quite as good as last year’s. The roster last year was filled with veteran players - all with talent and intellect - and knew how to play Villanova basketball. However, don’t sleep on this year’s defense either. They have a lot of talent coming in, and they all seem eager to learn. This group might take a bit to get ready, maybe end of January before we start seeing their defense come around, but look for these guys to compete every night and keep improving throughout the season. By tourney time, this defense could be a touch away from elite.