No college basketball team has won consecutive national championships since the Florida Gators did it in 2006 and 2007. Before them, no team had accomplished the feat since Christian Laettner and the Duke Blue Devils cut down the nets in 1991 and 1992.
That’s what makes Villanova so intriguing in 2016-17. Yes, the Wildcats will suffer some losses. Ryan Arcidiacono was a four-year starter, a tenacious defender and a viable offense option for the Cats, while Daniel Ochefu was one of the best two-way big men in America. Those departures will hurt. Luckily for Villanova fans, their returning players should ease the pain.
Take a look at the Wildcats’ roster, and you’ll see several players once thought to be ‘underrated.’ A funny thing happens when you win a national title. Everyone knows how good you are.
Josh Hart was Villanova’s best player last season, and that margin will only increase this year. Hart led the Wildcats in scoring (15.5 ppg) on 51.3 percent shooting. One of the best rebounding guards in the nation, Hart pulled down 6.8 caroms per game last season. That’s crucial given Ochefu’s departure.
And we all know what stretch power forward Kris Jenkins is capable of:
Returning sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson should take another step, too, after averaging 9.6 points per game on solid percentages last season. And I get it. You already knew all of this. If Villanova is going to repeat, they’re going to have to replace Arcidiacono and Ochefu. How will that happen?
For starters, Villanova’s most intriguing NBA prospect wasn’t even in its starting lineup last season. That would be Mikal Bridges, a 6-7 uber-athlete capable of locking down four positions.
Bridges is outstanding defensively, but his offense is a work in progress. With that said, he still converted on 52.1 percent of his shot attempts last season. And though he made less than 30 percent of his 3’s a year ago, Villanova’s offense rolled with Bridges on the floor. His 128.7 offensive rating ranked first among Wildcat regulars, and he’s an instinctual cutter and offensive rebounder.
Bridges won’t cramp a team’s spacing as much as most non-shooters do; ignore him, and he'll torch you:
Bridges has the talent and the basketball IQ to become a household name this season.
Reserve guard Phil Booth had a down year as a sophomore, but his outstanding NCAA tournament rendered flashbacks to his incredible freshman campaign. Booth shot 56.3 (!) percent from the floor in 2014-15 and connected on nearly half of his 3s, and while those figures dipped last season, Booth saved his best for last. In two Final Four affairs, the heady guard averaged 15 points per game off the bench and hit 10 of his 13 field goal attempts.
Booth also played a good portion of last season with an injury. He says he’s all good now.
"I'm great – I'm fully cleared to play and played today, so I'm just happy to get back out there,” Booth said. “Playing with the injury, I had to adjust my game a little bit, find ways to contribute off the bench because I couldn't move as well as I wanted to do. It was definitely an adjustment for me. Now I'm feeling better, I'm healthy.”
With all of that in mind, the biggest reason for Villanova optimism might be Fordham transfer Eric Paschall. A 6-6 swingman, Paschall averaged 15.9 points per game as a freshman in the Atlantic 10 in 2014-15 and showcased a dynamic off-the-bounce game. If he’s a poor man’s version of Josh Hart, that will do.
And then there’s freshman Omari Spellman. He’ll be expected to fill Ochefu’s void along with Darryl Reynolds, and though he’s likely not as stout of a rim protector as Ochefu was by the time he was a senior, even the national champion wasn’t this multi-faceted on offense:
Villanova has star power, shooting, size, the ability to play small and a fantastic coach. The Ochefu and Arcidiacono losses will hurt, and achieving consistency in the NCAA tournament is an oxymoron. Regardless, if any defending national champion is poised to repeat, it’s this one.