The Pavilion doesn’t quite look the way Mikal Bridges’ remembers during his heyday on Villanova’s campus, but no matter how much its been renovated or repainted, it still very much feels like home.
“It’s dope. Especially this, the new one,” Bridges said of the Pavilion. “Really upset I didn’t play here. I had one more year, I should’ve stayed, but it’s really cool to be back. I was excited for the game and to watch these boys play.”
Although he never played at the new-look Finn, he got to take center court for the first time as an alumnus.
“Having Mikal back was great, obviously one of the Villanova greats,” Wildcats head coach Kyle Neptune said. “It’s always great having those guys back. Thinking back to when he was a player, what he meant to this program and what he continues to mean to the program as an example — not only as a player, but who he is as a person — it was nice to have him back. He didn’t address the team, but he came to the locker room pregame and his presence was definitely felt.”
Bridges became the latest Wildcat to get his jersey retired during halftime of the Wildcats’ 57-40 win over Maryland on Friday night.
“Real special, never thought this day would come,” Bridges said of the honor. “Never thought of it really happening, but really special being here for four years. Everything we accomplished as a team, and this whole program — just blessed, honestly.”
The two-time national champion and former NCAA All-American got to join collegiate teammates Ryan Arcidiacono (2020), Josh Hart (2022) and Jalen Brunson (2023), who also had their jerseys retired in recent years.
“Leave with a degree, try to play, that’s really what it was,” said Bridges of what he first envisioned for himself coming into Villanova. “Try to find minutes each year, nothing bigger than that, honestly. Everything comes with just playing well and winning. All my goals were try to get a degree and just try to get some minutes out there.”
He did way more than that.
After redshirting as a freshman, he became a fan-favorite with his long wingspan and reputation as a lockdown defender. He helped the ‘Cats win it all in 2016.
The following year, he worked his way into the starting five and was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year for a Villanova team that won conference regular season and tournament titles.
During his final season in 2017-18, he helped bring the ‘Cats back to the mountaintop and was a catalyst in their 36-4 season, where they won every NCAA Tournament contest by double figures en route to their second national title in three years.
“It’s great to talk about it now, but I remember that freshman year was one of the toughest years,” Bridges said. “I never had a situation where you miss a whole year of playing basketball, and you’re perfectly healthy. Just sitting out was always tough, and then the work outs were crazy. They got me ready for next year and just being in school for the first year of college, so it was tough on me, but I had my family and friends that helped me so much.
“Just looking after, just continuing every year and seeing the progression every year and getting better as a man, as a person and as a player, everything was looking good every year and every step.”
His final season on the Main Line was a memorable one at an individual and team-wide level. In addition to his second national championship ring, he was named an All-American, and the Julius Erving Award winner as the nation’s top small forward. He ended his Villanova career with 1,311 points, 504 rebounds, 103 steals and 101 blocks.
Over his four years as a Wildcat, Villanova posted a combined 136-16 record.
“Mental toughness was the biggest thing,” said Bridges of the biggest lesson he learned. “Just being mentally tough on the basketball court and off the basketball court. That’s what we preach and I probably couldn’t have gotten that anywhere else. I take that with me now and in life every single day. Life is tough, you’re going to have some moments and it’s how you act afterwards, so I take that as the biggest thing.”
A first team all-defense team selection in 2022, Bridges is currently a starter for the Brooklyn Nets. In addition to his two-way play, he’s garnered a reputation for being an iron man. He’s played in more than 400 consecutive NBA games, the longest active streak by a wide margin, during an age where load management has become more prominent in the NBA.
He defers the credit for his decorated collegiate career and continued individual success to his teammates and former coaches, especially Jay Wright.
Although he’s proud to be in the NBA and happy to see several of his former teammates there too, he’s taken great pride in Villanova’s growing presence in the league, especially as more ‘Cats continue to make their way to the pro level.
“That was always a thing about ‘Nova, people saying Coach Wright don’t put guys in the NBA and stuff like that — I remember that, coming into this school,” Bridges said. “I think it’s just the players coach recruits and the work we put in. We all work hard, and all the details. I think we’re the most detailed team, most organized team ever — than any other team.
“It shows when I leave and I’m in the league, and play against guys or be teammates with guys who aren’t as detailed as I am. I know how Josh (Hart), Jalen (Brunson) and everybody is, and that’s strictly because we went to ‘Nova. Coaches tell us all the time, and you can ask them. Every coach they’ve ever been with is probably like, ‘Oh, a Villanova guy’ — because we’re so locked in and detailed in everything.”