When Villanova started their 2016-2017 season there was much belief in the college basketball world that they could realistically repeat as national champions. These Wildcats lost two of their starters in Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu due to graduation last year. It was easy to see the value that each of them brought in terms of leadership and on-court performance. However, this team has been able to find a way to fill the void that those two left behind.
Upon the season starting, Villanova was expecting five-star recruit, Omari Spellman to help defend their title. Unfortunately, due to NCAA rules, Spellman was academically ineligible to compete this season. Transferring over from schools while he was in eighth grade, a mix-up of his actual grade-level forced the NCAA’s hand. Spellman now has to wait until next season to suit up and hit the court for the Wildcats.
One might think that this could be a devastating blow to the program. However, with Villanova returning all but two players who helped win a national championship last year, they look as if they will be fine without Spellman.
The loss of Phil Booth for the year was a huge blow. After having continuous pain in his left knee from an off-season procedure, Booth has been unable to practice or even suit up for the Wildcats this season. As a play-making guard, Booth has had a significant impact in the back-court. Booth, while they will miss his play-making ability, has veteran experience that they could have leaned on, and with Arcidiacono leaving could be even more of a pivotal blow. Booth was Villanova’s best player in the national championship game last year putting up a quiet 20 points.
Dante DiVincenzo has made up for the production of Booth’s absence. DiVincenzo gives the Wildcats an athletic two-guard, an underrated rebounder, and a player who can create his own offense.
As if that weren’t enough, starting center Daryl Reynolds is now battling a nagging rib injury sidelining him, forcing head coach Jay Wright to get big bodies like Dylan Painter out their to protect the rim. Villanova has seen their starting rotation go from a hopeful nine-man rotation in the off-season to a withered six man rotation.
Returning players like Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, and Jalen Brunson all staying healthy have saved Villanova’s season. With all of these players helping contribute to last year’s championship, having them healthy now is vital. Adding in players with high motors like DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall takes some of the pressure off of the returning players.
Brunson has taken tremendous strides this season. He’s taken over as the floor general and is the guy they trust with the ball in any situation. Being handed the keys to this offense, Brunson has shown he can be an efficient scorer and knowledgeable at knowing when to score and when to facilitate.
Hart has been in the conversation as a Naismith candidate which is unusual of a Villanova player to be in such a conversation. Hart is averaging 18.6 points per game while also gathering 6.6 rebounds per game. That stat line looks like Hart is deserving of being in that conversation.
This year’s Villanova squad is the epitome of using all of their pieces and blending them together to form a contender. Each player plays with unselfishness which is key considering the amount of offensive firepower that is capable from each player.
Villanova has proven throughout the season that they have been doing just fine without Spellman and Booth, which is scary to think that Villanova could be better than they already are had those two been eligible/healthy. Villanova has fought through the adversity of both injuries and having a huge target on their back as champions. One could say it is understandable to see exhaustion as we get closer to both the conference and national tournament. Villanova has gone 27-3 so far this season. That record does not look like a team that is showing signs of weakness or exhaustion.
There is something about this Villanova program that is always willing to take a challenge head on and overcome it. Whether it be from being the lowest seed to win a national championship back in 1985, defeating powerhouse colleges like Kansas and North Carolina on the way to a national championship last year, or even the injuries that plague them this year. Nothing seems to rattle these Wildcats, who have shown their mental toughness consistently throughout program history. That mental toughness is something that this program prides themselves on.
So, is the lack of depth an issue for Villanova? Or is it something that will strengthen their chances heading into the tournament?