Don’t call it a ti­tle de­fense for Wild­cats

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Terry Toohey ttoohey@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Ter­ryToohey on Twit­ter

RAD­NOR >> Do not re­fer to the Vil­lanova Wild­cats as the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons. You will be im­me­di­ately cor­rected.

“We’re not the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons,” se­nior guard Josh Hart said. “When you say ‘de­fend­ing,’ it means it can be taken away from you. We won it. No one can take that away from us.”

True. The cham­pi­onship rings have been awarded and the cham­pi­onship ban­ners have been raised in the Pavil­ion and the Wells Fargo Cen­ter. The na­tional cham­pi­onship tro­phy is safely tucked away in a new case in the foyer of the re­cently ren­o­vated Davis Cen­ter, Vil­lanova’s seven-year-old prac­tice fa­cil­ity. It’s not go­ing any­where.

But while the fourthranked Wild­cats may not think of them­selves as the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons they are the reign­ing ti­tlists un­til a new cham­pion is crowned in April. No team has won back-to­back cham­pi­onships since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Could Vil­lanova break that streak?

“We’ll take it,” Hart said smile.

Hart and fel­low se­niors Kris Jenk­ins and Dar­ryl Reynolds would like noth­ing bet­ter than to make a run at an­other na­tional ti­tle in their fi­nal sea­son on the Main Line, but that is not their fo­cus go­ing into Fri­day night’s opener against Lafayette at the Pavil­ion (6:30).

“Our goal is to be the best team we can be at the end of the year,” said Jenk­ins, who hit the win­ning shot in Vil­lanova’s 77-74 vic­tory over North Carolina in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game. “That’s al­ways our goal.”

Vil­lanova cer­tainly has the tal­ent and the depth to make a run at an­other na­tional ti­tle, even with the grad­u­a­tion losses of Ryan Ar­cidi­a­cono and Daniel Ochefu.

The 6-5 Hart was picked as the pre­sea­son Player of the Year in the Big East and was a pre­sea­son All-Amer­ica pick by The As­so­ci­ated Press. He spent the off­sea­son get­ting big­ger and work­ing on his jump shot and ball-han­dling skills.

At 6-6, Jenk­ins is a deadly shooter who has de­vel­oped his all-around game in his time at Vil­lanova. The 6-9 Reynolds made great strides last sea­son and will be counted on greatly now that prized re­cruit Omari Spell­man has been ruled out as an aca­demic red­shirt.

Most of all, Hart, Jenk­ins and Reynolds know how to win. They are 97-13 in three years, with three Big East reg­u­lar-sea­son ti­tles, one Big East tour­na­ment crown and a na­tional cham­pi­onship. The ques­tion is can they be the kind of lead­ers a cham­pi­onship team needs?

They’re up to the chal­lenge.

“We know it’s our time,” Hart said. “We’re se­niors now. We have to step up and be the lead­ers of the team.”

De­spite the losses of Ar­cidi­a­cono, Ochefu and Spell­man, this team could be deeper than the na­tional cham­pi­onship squad.

Guards Jalen Brun­son and Phil Booth are back and they are be­ing counted on to make up for the loss of Ar­cidi­a­cono in the back­court. The 6-2 Brun­son was steady as a fresh­man. He was a unan­i­mous choice for the All-Big East rookie team and was named the Big 5 Rookie of the Year.

The world got a glimpse of what the 6-3 Booth is ca­pa­ble of do­ing in the na­tional cham­pi­onship game when he shot 6 for 6 from the field for a ca­reer-high 20 points.

Mikal Bridges’ role grew with each pass­ing game and the 6-7 sopho­more should be a key con­trib­u­tor off the bench once again. Bridges was a dis­rup­tive force in Vil­lanova’s press.

Trans­fer Eric Paschall has slimmed down to six per­cent body fat and is ready to step in af­ter sit­ting out as a red­shirt. The 6-7, 250-pound sopho­more was the At­lantic 10 Rookie of the Year as a fresh­man at Ford­ham in 2014-15. He av­er­aged 15.9 points and 5.5 re­bounds per game that sea­son.

Guard Donte DiVin­cenzo and for­ward Tim De­laney both sat out last sea­son as med­i­cal red­shirts. The 6-5 DiVin­cenzo did play in eight games be­fore he was felled by a frac­tured fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot. The 6-8 De­laney adds some much needed size, but ex­pect Wright to bring De­laney along slowly. He missed last sea­son fol­low­ing surgery on both hips.

And then there is 6-10 fresh­man Dy­lan Painter. He showed prom­ise dur­ing Vil­lanova’s three-game trip to Spain in Au­gust.

That’s a lot of po­ten­tial bod­ies to get into a 40-minute game.

“The ques­tions are go­ing to be Dy­lan and Timmy De­laney up front, and can Donte and Eric progress through their first year the way Mikal and Jalen did,” Vil­lanova coach Jay Wright said. “Mikal and Jalen were com­pletely dif­fer­ent play­ers at the end of the year. Can we do that? That’s the chal­lenge of the sea­son.”

That’s not the only test the Wild­cats will face. Like it or not they are the reign­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons, which means ev­ery team they face will want a piece of them and it all be­gins Fri­day night.

“You don’t know if you can do any­thing about it, you just can’t be sur­prised by it,” Wright said. “You have to know it’s com­ing. It can’t be your mo­ti­va­tion, but it can’t be a sur­prise to you, either. You have to know what you’re in for ev­ery night. I think we’ve had a lit­tle bit of ex­pe­ri­ence with that (in the Big East), but not like what it’s go­ing to be this year.”

••• Vil­lanova of­fi­cially an­nounced the sign­ing of Dhamir-Crosby Roundtree and Jer­maine Sa­muels Wed­nes­day dur­ing the first day of the week-long fall sign­ing pe­riod.

Crosby is a 6-9 for­ward from PIAA Class 3A champ Neu­mann-Goretti. He is ranked No. 70 in the Class of 2017 by Scout.com.

“This is a ta­lented young man on court and in the class­room who will be a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to our pro­gram,” Wright said.

Sa­muels is a 6-6 small for­ward from Rivers School in We­ston, Mass. He’s ranked No. 42 by Scout.com and No. 46 by ESPN.com.

“We are for­tu­nate to wel­come a stu­dent and player of Jer­maine’s cal­iber to our bas­ket­ball pro­gram,” Wright said. “Jer­maine is an ex­plo­sive ath­lete who can play mul­ti­ple po­si­tions.”

GENE J. PUSKAR — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Great Val­ley grad Mikal Bridges, right, is ex­pected to be a key con­trib­u­tor for Vil­lanova this sea­son.

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