Villanova Basketball: Are the Wildcats the North Carolina of the Northeast?

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Mikal Bridges
BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Mikal Bridges /

The Associated Press has the Villanova Wildcats ranked number six in the nation, but they should easily go higher, barring injury.

In 2016, the Villanova Wildcats clawed their way to the top of college basketball’s mountain, stumbling first in their Big East title game against the Seton Hall Pirates. In 2017, in the last rematch with The Hall, they took back the conference title before falling to Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament by three points. That was the margin of victory over North Carolina in the previous year’s championship contest.

With the 2017-18 college hoops season about to begin, it’s time to assess the Wildcats’ chances. Will they continue to play like the North Carolina of the Northeast as they have for several years, or will coach Jay Wright’s charges falter?

I see a hand in the back: “North Carolina of the Northeast” is an overstatement, you say?

I don’t think so. Since Wright took over before the 2001-02 season, Villanova has had two losing seasons, in Wright’s second year (15-16) and in 2011-12 (13-19). In that same timeframe, North Carolina has had only one losing season and two others with three more wins than losses. Maybe the ACC has been, generally, tougher than both of the Big East versions this century, but how far behind is the Big East now?

They’ve Already Started Keeping Score

In a two-point exhibition win over Drexel for hurricane relief Nov. 1, Wright gave eight players at least fifteen minutes but threw out an odd starting line-up, including a forward and four guards: Omari Spellman, Phil Booth, Colin Gillespie, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. The first fact is significant; the line-up is not, and may not happen again as a starting five, though it could be seen together on the court in the near future.

What was positive about this game was that no Nova player had more than 28-minutes, according to’s Brendan O’Reilly, who also pointed out four players averaged over 29-minutes last season. In last season’s campaign, the Wildcats had to often go with a seven-man rotation because of Booth’s season-long absence due to a knee injury.

The Starters and Others

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at the players quickly, starting with the potential starting line-up:

Spellman, forward, 6-foot-9, 245-pounds, second-year freshman: A large, talented player out of North Royalton, Ohio (read, Cleveland), Spellman played prep ball in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He can hit the three, and indeed, hit two of them in the Drexel exhibition while shooting 3-for-4 and grabbing 12-rebounds. Coming out of high school, he was ranked 18th among ESPN’s top 100.

Mikal Bridges, guard/forward, 6-foot-7, 210-pounds, fourth-year junior:  Despite a fairly spindly frame, long-time Philly hoops guru Dick Jerardi asserts Bridges is “the best NBA prospect in the city” now.  He has a fantastic wing-span, is lightning-quick, and has extraordinary defensive instincts.

Eric Paschall, forward, 6-foot-9, 255-pounds, fourth-year junior: As the oldest and bulkiest big man on the squad, Paschall will probably have to shoot a bit less from the outside this season. In the Drexel exhibition, he missed two threes but had the second most rebounds to Spellman with nine.

Brunson, guard, 6-foot-3, 190-pounds, junior: Brunson will control the ball most of the time unless something really odd happens, or he’s taking a breather. Now that he’s a third-year player, we can no longer say he’s mature beyond his years, but the reality is this left-hander is probably more prepared to play in the NBA now than Bridges. He can pass, drive and shoot very well. His Big East 2016-17 highlights section at is 14-lines deep, and unlike some others’ summaries, includes actual highlights.

Related Story: Jay Wright shares hilarious message for Villanova football team during College GameDay

DiVincenzo, guard, 6-foot-5 205-pounds, third-year sophomore: He hit 14-of-26 shots (.538) in the two NCAA tournament games last season. He’s quick for a tall guard, drives well, and is improving as a shooter and passer. DiVincenzo may ultimately become a longer, stronger Ryan Archidiacono.

Others who will make an impact this season will be Booth (it is hoped – those knees). The fourth-year junior is the probable sixth man. Other potential, significant contributors seem to be Jermaine Samuels, a 6-foot-5 freshman forward, and possibly Collin Gillespie, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard out of Archbishop Wood. He got 19-minutes against Drexel and averaged 24.1 points during his senior prep year.

On Nov. 1 the AP declared Villanova the sixth best team in the nation – obviously before real play starts. Without injuries, they could move higher. It may depend on whether or how well Brunson and DiVincenzo play together a lot because I think they have to.

Next: Villanova Wildcats receive respectable No. 6 spot in latest Coaches Poll

The Villanova Wildcats open up their season on Nov. 10 against Columbia at the Wells Fargo Center.