Jay Wright has built his program on defense and attitude, both of which come with experience. Even when younger players like Ryan Arcidiacono were named captain, the upperclassman always held important leadership roles at Villanova. This year will be no different, as seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds have all been named team captains. Add in Phill Booth, who had a breakout game in the national championship, and it's easy to get excited about the leadership and experience of the upperclassman.
But unlike previous seasons, the seniors and juniors aren't going to be expected to carry this team. While Jay does have a group of mostly inexperienced freshman this season, it's the sophomore class that is truly unique. Their combination of talent and experience is rare for a group of second years, and Jay could rely on them far more than any other underclassman group in the past decade.
First let's take a quick look at how this group got to a point where they could be such strong contributors as sophomores. Jalen Brunson followed up an MVP and Gold Medal with USA Basketball by starting for a National Championship team. Throw in a year of mentoring from the team's leader and Final Four MOP, and it's easy to see why everyone's so excited to see him step into the floor general role.
Mikal Bridges red-shirted his first season with Villanova in '14-'15. Not only did this give him some time to put on a little extra weight, but he also got to learn Villanova's system, especially on defense. When he got his chance to contribute as a freshman, he made the most of every minute. With an improving offensive game, an elite defensive wingspan, and a National Championship on his resume, he's easily one of the more tested and confident sophomores in the country.
Eric Paschall was a leader during his A-10 Rookie of the Year season at Fordham before transferring to Villanova last season. During his required red-shirt year, he would play the role of the opposing team's best player in practice. That meant going up against Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds, or fellow sophomore Mikal Bridges every day. With a year of knowing Nova's system under his belt and an arsenal of offensive abilities, Paschall is ready to get back into playing at an elite level.
So with Brunson being a leader at every level, Paschall playing at a high level at two schools, and Bridges entering his 3rd year at Villanova, this group has much more experience than most do as sophomores. That puts Villanova in the unique position of having three classes with the poise and experience of seniors. Not only can they use that maturity to mentor the large freshman class, but Jay can now rely on his sophomores to contribute more meaningful minutes during the season.
Experience Equals Minutes
Wright has had a tendency to rely on his experienced players in big games, and this year should be no different. That being said, it's hard to predict how the minutes will play out this season, especially with what appears to be more players in the rotation. But for the sake of argument, let's take a look at a few of the players average minutes per game from last season:
|Player||'15-'16 Minutes Per Game
Now while it's unlikely that these minutes just shift down the line, it's not out of the question. Brunson will be the primary ball handler and could easily see 30 minutes a game. Booth would see a bump in minutes too, up to Brunson's spot. Bridges, now being the first man off the bench takes Booth's minutes, plus a likely bump due to his ability to play multiple positions. So let's say he averages 24 minutes per game. And lastly, Paschall, who will likely be giving up some of the leftover minutes to Donte DiVincenzo, could land around the 16 minute mark.
You can argue that one of those may be too high or too low. But after watching these three play in the Blue/White Scrimmage and in Spain, it's very possible that the three of them could combine for 70+ minutes per game this season. While it would be rare for Jay Wright to rely on underclassman that heavily, it's not unheard of. No, the unheard of part would be how excited the fans would be if he did it.
It's Worked Out Well Before
Only four times in his fifteen seasons at Villanova has Coach Wright committed 70+ minutes per game to a group of freshmen or sophomores. And never before did the class only consist of only 3 players. But even though he hasn't done it often, it's hard to argue with the results.
The most recent and least successful example was the 2011 sophomore class of Maalik Wayns, Mouphtaou Yarou, Maurice Sutton, Isaiah Armwood, and Dominic Cheek. While this was more out of necessity and the group didn't have near the level of experience the current sophomores do, they still were able to pull together an NCAA Tournament bid with a very young team.
Prior to that, the freshman class of 2008 including Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena, and Malcolm Grant contributed just over 70 minutes per game. Andrew Ott and Jason Colenda were also in that class, but neither played in more than 5 games. That team would advance to the Sweet 16 before falling to #1 Kansas. That experience lead them to a final four run the following year.
But the most successful group of underclassman during Jay Wright's tenure was the class of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser. While they were skilled enough to contribute and start as freshmen, it was their sophomore season where they really started to shine. Once they had bought into Jay Wright's system and had a year to acclimate to it, they were truly able to excel.
That group's sophomore season is the best comparison to this year's class. While they may have had a little more talent than Brunson, Bridges, and Paschall, they were able to take a year of experience in the Villanova system and turn it into one of the greatest teams the school had ever seen. Now, this year's sophomores will try to do the same with almost double the experience and a group of elite upperclassman to lead the way. On top of that, they've already proven they can win on the sports' biggest stage. While there's a lot of reasons to be excited for Villanova Basketball this season, these Super Sophomores are #1 on my list.