Don’t call it a title defense for Wildcats
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.”
Great Valley grad Mikal Bridges, right, is expected to be a key contributor for Villanova this season.