How Villanova's senior-free lineup sets up for another deep March run
- After winning it all two years ago, Villanova fell victim to another early tournament exit. Do this year's stars have enough firepower to bring the Final Four back into focus?
The college basketball off-season is long and largely lacking in major news developments. Programs are still finalizing their 2017 recruiting classes and sorting out which of their players will return for another season or jump to the professional ranks. We’ve got a long way to go until Midnight Madness. To help pass the time, SI.com is asking and answering three key questions about each of the teams in our Way-Too-Early Top 25. Here’s No. 5, Villanova.
1. How does Jalen Brunson handle really being handed the keys?
O.K., so he already had the keys last year, in terms of running the point solo after Ryan Arcidiacono’s graduation, but now he has another set of keys, with Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart and forever hero Kris Jenkins having graduated. Maybe the metaphor doesn’t quite work that way. Regardless, the point is that whatever increased role Brunson took on as a sophomore is likely only the beginning of how pivotal he will be for the Wildcats now.
This season’s Villanova team will (somewhat shockingly) not feature a single senior player on scholarship, placing a larger burden for leadership on the junior class that Brunson headlines. Thankfully for the Wildcats, Brunson is a particularly experienced third-year player, having started for the 2015-16 national title team and last year’s squad that spent eight weeks ranked No. 1. The former five-star recruit responded favorably to being featured more heavily in last season’s offense, upping his scoring from 9.6 points per game to 14.7 while increasing his kenpom.com offensive efficiency rating from 107.9 to 125.7 (which ranked fifth in the Big East). Brunson is a poised, heady player with an outstanding pedigree and oft-lauded work ethic; with even more room to take over, don’t be surprised to see him do just that.
2. So, just how good is Omari Spellman?
Perhaps the most intriguing what-if of Villanova’s 2016-17 season centered on what the Wildcats would have looked like had five-star freshman Omari Spellman been eligible to play. (The NCAA ruled Spellman an academic redshirt due to complications over when he began the ninth grade, a decision with which coach Jay Wright disagreed.) Spellman, a 6' 9" forward known for an advanced scoring acumen and his imposing, 275-pound frame, would have likely seen ample early playing time not only due to his own skills but also as a result of Villanova’s relatively thin ranks up front. When Darryl Reynolds missed five games with a rib/sternum injury in February, 6' 7" Eric Paschall and freshman Dylan Painter had to hold down the five in his absence.
As it is, Spellman enters his redshirt freshman season with a clear path to the Wildcats’ lineup, as Reynolds has graduated and Paschall will slide back to his more natural spots at the three and four. Wright had expressed concerns about Spellman’s conditioning last summer, but with a full year on campus and in the team’s conditioning program, one would imagine Spellman will be relatively ready to go.
3. Will the expected Donte DiVincenzo breakout come to fruition?
Everyone loves projecting a good sophomore breakout, and who fits that bill better than the guy once dubbed the Michael Jordan of Delaware? Coming off the bench for 25.5 minutes per game as a redshirt freshman last season, DiVincenzo posted a solid 112.0 offensive rating and shot 36.5% from three while averaging 8.8 points. He finished the season particularly strong, scoring 21 against Mount St. Mary’s and 15 against Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, at times emerging as the only lifeline for an oddly moribund Villanova offense. Wright said last January that he thinks DiVincenzo “can be Josh Hart,” obviously high praise. Whatever he may become, DiVincenzo’s first step toward getting there will be helping replace Hart in the starting lineup, slotting alongside Brunson at the two, which will give the sophomore the chance to post more eye-catching number. It’s an opportunity he looked ready for in March.