I remember the first time I hooped with Villanova Wildcats swingman Mikal Bridges.
It was at the Upper Main Line YMCA located in the tranquil town of Berwyn, Pennsylvania, a suburb located just outside of Philadelphia.
I attended St. Norbert’s Elementary School at the time, which was located within walking distance of the YMCA, and there were other institutions located within the immediate vicinity, so the YMCA was a hoops hotbed.
A rather large contingency of us would go to the Y often, almost every day if things such as school and work permitted, and we’d always get solid runs in the unkempt gym located in the basement of the facility. The baskets weren’t great, and the floors weren’t either, but we all refrained from griping because we were just kids that wanted to run.
Usually I’d go with my buddies Ryan and Kyle, both members of Basketball Society, and whoever else we could nab to play. The most preeminent runs came when all of our buddies were in on the action: Isaiah, Alex, Charlie, and Terrence just to name a few. Games were competitive, as nobody wanted to lose, and the verbiage during these showdowns was mostly trash-talk, whether it was someone trying to get into someone else’s head attempting to stall out their game, or some good-natured banter just to spice up the game.
I can’t remember the exact date, but it had to be 2008 or 2009. Just as we did on most hazy afternoons, Isaiah, Ryan, Charlie and I were getting some runs in at the Y. There weren’t that many people there, so we jousted amongst ourselves playing games of “21” and 2-on-2. A few moments later, a gangly kid with a basketball in his hand walked in to link up with three of his homies.
Just as the unwritten rule of pickup basketball says, if there’s competition on the court with an equal number of parties on both sides, you must ask them if they want to play. So we scoffed at the age difference between us (Ryan, Charlie, and Isaiah were all sophomores in high school, and I was in 8th grade, so we had a few years on these kids) and challenged them to a game. Of course they obliged and it was on.
Initially we elected to tread lightly because we figured this game would be a breeze. But the lanky kid who said his name was Mikal was getting buckets! His game was very advanced for his age, with a smoothness to it that resembled some of the finest silk that you could file your fingers through.
Of course we picked up the pace and ended up trouncing them, but we all walked away astonished by the way this kid was playing. I remember Charlie saying as a joke, “Yo, the black man is nice!” We both still cackle about that to this day.
We all showered him with praise and told him he could run with us any time and to continue to work on his game. Over the ensuing months we got to know Mikal a little better, and not only did he prove to be an excellent basketball player, but a goofy kid with a distinct aura about him. We were always laughing about something silly, you know, stuff you laugh about when you’re in 7th, 8th and 9th grade.
I’d like to think Mikal heeded to my “work on your game,” advice, but I know that’s just my yearning for some form of credit. He recognized his God-given talent and fixated his mind on basketball success, and that came to fruition at Great Valley High School in Malvern, PA where he went on to carve out an excellent career, registering 1,340 points, 511 rebounds, 181 assists and 158 blocks during his tenure.
Mikal was also named First Team All-State (Class AAAA) in Pennsylvania his senior year, and the Philadelphia Inquirer selected him to their All-Southern PA First-Team.
I remember being in attendance for Great Valley’s Chesmont Conference Championship clash with the Coatesville Red Raiders. It was a packed house, and the two teams delivered a dandy to the fans, but ultimately the talented Red Raiders prevailed by a narrow margin.
Mikal played well, but Coatesville, a perennial Chesmont Championship contender and the school that produced three-time NBA All-Star Rip Hamilton, was balanced with a bevy of athletes capable of making a a big play or shot and that proved to be too much to upend for Great Valley.
Mikal received a slew of offers from some big-named D-1 schools, and I actually favorited a tweet of his from March of 2013 when he mentioned that he got his first offer from Temple University.
Mikal eventually deemed Villanova University, located in Villanova, PA, as his collegiate home, but he was redshirted as a freshman, stowed away as if he were to be unearthed like some secret weapon later. Everyone, most likely including Mikal himself, knew he had to get stronger. His frame may have been a little too slender, so the Wildcats focused on muscle maintenance to better equip Mikal for D-1 ball.
I actually saw him at my job that winter, and not only was he a hell of a lot taller, he appeared to have beefed up too. I was glad to see that because to me it illustrated that his time was soon to come.
Well, Nova head coach Jay Wright decided that this season was the one in which Mikal’s services would be beckoned upon, and he’s had a profound effect on this Wildcats team. His main statistics are modest — 6.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per outing in 20 minutes of action, but his game isn’t for those entranced with numbers.
Mikal is a versatile swingman and a defensive savant. He’s third on the Wildcats in Defensive Rating, a statistic that estimates the number of points allowed per 100 possessions when that player is on the floor. He’s also top-five in Defensive Win Shares (1.7), a stat that gives an estimate of wins contributed by a player due to his defense according to Basketball-Reference.com
I’ve watched Nova games this season in which I’ve seen Mikal switch out onto a speedster in the backcourt, then retreat back to the paint to fend off some behemoth on the glass. Mikal is top-five on the team in total rebounds at 118, and his 24 blocks are second-best on the squad.
He’s a heady player who doesn’t take a bad shot and rarely makes mistakes. He adheres to the game plan sculpted by Wright, and his multi-dimensional game makes him such a dangerous piece on a very talented team.
Mikal is flanked by the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Daniel Ochefu, Phil Booth, and Jalen Brunson, so his full potential hasn’t needed to be unlatched, but he won’t be relegated to the role of utility guy and defensive menace forever.
As Villanova eyes the Final Four appearance that has eluded them since 2009 when they were piloted by Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham, Jay Wright knows these pressure-permeated moments in the NCAA Tournament will groom Mikal for when he’s to assume a bigger role on the team. When seniors Arcidiacono and Ochefu graduate, he’ll be rewarded for his play this season with more minutes and he’ll strive to succeed those guys the best he can.
I’m not going to sugarcoat things and make it seem as if we’re best friends, because we’re not. We’re both grinding in our respective fields: he on the court and me in the blogosphere. But let’s not get it twisted, when we see each other it’s all love. I’ve always had a certain level of respect for Mikal, as I do most basketball players, so of course there’s going to be cordiality when we greet each other even though we rarely converse.
To be honest, I’m not really a huge college basketball guy as I prefer the pro game, and I hold no allegiance to any college team, but I’ve found myself often sifting through the Verizon Fios TV guide in hopes of finding a Nova game. I’ve paid more attention to them than ever before, and that can be accredited to Mikal’s presence. When someone you know and are friends with plays on a D-1 sports team, it’s your natural inclination to follow their squad and or become a fan of the team.
I think it’s safe to say I will root for Villanova for the remainder of Mikal’s stint, and if my fidelity for the Wildcats persists after that then I guess I’ve finally found my college basketball team. If not, at least I’ll be able to tuck the memories of watching a friend play in the vault of my memory bank.
#2 Villanova is slated to take on #3 Miami (FL) in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, and the team hopes to dispatch of the Hurricanes and trek closer to their goal of a Final Four appearance with hopes of parlaying that into a National Championship.
Although there seems to be this narrative that Villanova “chokes,” they have a legitimate chance of winning it all, and just as his teammates and coaches have acknowledged, Mikal is an integral part to having their championship dreams materialize.
Something told me I saw a special talent at the Y that day, and my gut proved to be correct.
Crazy to think the gangly, goofy kid from the Upper Main Line YMCA would go on to become an intrinsic component on one of the best college basketball teams in the nation. I’m not sure if it moves you, but to me it’s a hell of a story. Keep on hooping Mikal, I’m rooting for you bro.