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.

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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.

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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.”

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