When top-10 schools such as Kansas, Florida and Notre Dame lose games nobody could have fathomed they would, it makes you appreciate the Villanovas of the world little more.
The Wildcats are so good that it’s kind of boring. Jay Wright’s squad is 9-0, and has won eight of those nine by double-digits. Villanova’s early-season dominance isn’t new. The Wildcats haven’t lost a game in November in five years. Really. They’ve only lost three December games in that span, and the Wildcats are playing worthy foes: Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Creighton, Michigan and Kansas have all been victims during this stretch.
Glance at the top of the current rankings (which will look drastically different come Monday, for what it’s worth) and Villanova’s steadiness is uncommon. Duke, the consensus No. 1 team, reasonably could have lost to Michigan State, Texas, Florida, Portland State and Indiana this year. Of course, the unblemished Blue Devils didn’t. But all of those teams provided real scares.
No. 2 Kansas just lost to Washington. No. 3 Michigan State has been similarly reliable, though it has that loss to Duke. Florida has lost two in a row, Wichita State nearly slipped up against Cal, and Kentucky struggled with the likes of Utah Valley and Vermont early on.
And you know what? Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Florida, Wichita State and Kentucky are really good teams. The difference: excluding the Spartans, none of them look like they’re operating at the peak of their powers just yet.
Villanova looks like it’s been playing together for 10 years.
The Wildcats have been marvelous for the last five, even if it hasn’t always gone far in the NCAA tournament outside of 2016. Since 2013-14, one school has won at least 29 games every season: Villanova. Its 138 wins since then are the most of any program.
The question: How? The Wildcats are always talented, but have never been the most talented.
An oversimplified explanation, but an accurate one: nobody is better at developing players.
“We get a lot of guys who are smart enough to know, they have a chance to be a pro – but it’s going to take a little time,” Wright said after the Gonzaga win. “They think, ‘I might be a little thin. Or I might need to work on my jumper. And I want to invest that time. And I want to be patient, and I want to be in college. I enjoy college.’ So it’s that combination.”
A Villanova freshman hasn’t averaged more than 10 points per game since the 2013-14 season – not even Josh Hart or Jalen Brunson. By the time he was a senior, Hart was a Naismith finalist. Brunson has a chance to win the award before he leaves school. Hart averaged 7.8 points coming off the bench as a freshman, and Brunson was the starting point guard on a national champion.
The most important Wildcats of the last five years had similar trajectories: guys like Darrun Hilliard, Kris Jenkins, Daniel Ochefu, Ryan Arcidiacono, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges. Each played key roles early in their careers. And while not all blossomed into stars by the time they were upperclassmen, several did.
Bridges is the latest case. He arrived at Villanova as a project, but he was always a tantalizing prospect: at 6-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, elite athleticism and a good feel for the game, Bridges had plenty to work with.
Thing is, that’s not that hard to find if you look at rosters all over the country. The challenging part is developing someone that raw, and unlocking all of their potential. Bridges deserves the bulk of the credit for his transformation, of course. But does this happen if he’s not at a player development hub like Villanova? Perhaps, but it’s not as likely.
Bridges arrived at Villanova as a non-shooter. Now, he’s hitting 51 percent of his 3s on nearly six attempts per game. These looks aren’t easy, either; Bridges is running off of pin downs and jacking as soon as he catches the ball, often with a defender in his face. It usually doesn’t matter. Bridges has legitimately turned into one of the best shooters in the nation, to the point where Wright draws up plays just to give him a crack of daylight. He’s become the college version of Kawhi Leonard.
“He’s playing with a lot more freedom and aggressiveness,” Wright said of Bridges. “Last year, he passed up a lot of those shots to get it to Josh (Hart) and Kris (Jenkins). He just knows it’s his turn.”
Brunson’s volume increases every year, yet somehow, so does his efficiency. That’s counterintuitive. Usually, carrying more of an offense burden means taking more difficult shots.
Brunson shot 45.2 percent as a freshman, 54.1 percent as a sophomore and is shooting an obscene 63.7 percent as a junior. That kind of clip is typically reserved for centers who don’t stray more than two feet from the hoop, not point guards. Brunson was good when he got to Villanova; he’s become a megastar.
Redshirt freshman center Omari Spellman adds an element to Villanova’s offense it hasn’t had during this run: a five who can shoot 3s. Spellman is shooting 38 percent from 3 and averaging 7.7 rebounds per game. He was known as a back-to-the-basket battering ram before he got to Villanova. Think he was working on anything in particular during his redshirt year? Spellman allows Wright to play a true five-out style.
One of Villanova’s pet sets that no other team has the ability run: let Brunson post up (he’s the best, and one of the only, post-up point guards in the game) and surround him with four shooters. Defenses have no chance because, A) what other team is posting up its point guard with regularity? It’s extremely hard to prepare for; and B) Brunson is a skilled, strong post player with obvious passing chops. Wright leverages his players’ unique strengths as well as anyone.
As usual, the Wildcats have more in the pipeline. Brunson and Bridges are the stars now. If Spellman stays in school to see his upperclassman years, he’ll be a star by then.
And based on Villanova’s track record and Donte DiVincenzo’s skillset, he feels like a near lock to be averaging 20 points as a senior. DiVincenzo is a bouncy wing with a polished offensive game; he’s averaging 11.1 points on 42 percent 3-point shooting as Villanova’s sixth man. Once Bridges moves on, he has All-American potential.
A lot of us watch college basketball for the unpredictability. We know Duke is awesome. It also feels like Duke is ripe for an upset on any given night, and that’s part of the fun of watching the Blue Devils.
Villanova doesn’t give us that — except for in the NCAA tournament. That’s a testament to its rare combination of greatness and consistency.
The Wildcats aren’t the No. 1 team yet, but it feels like their time is coming.