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Andy Katz | Correspondent | December 6, 2017

Villanova proved it's in an elite group after Gonzaga win

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NEW YORK — If there was any question or debate about Villanova’s status as an elite team, one that can legitimately contend for the national title, it should be over.

The Wildcats are in.

They are a member of the club that looks to include Duke, Michigan State and Kansas.

The group will expand and then shrink back again over the next few months. But this Nova team has staying power, similar to what it had two years ago when it won the national title in a final finish for the ages.

Villanova dominated Gonzaga in nearly every facet of the game Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. Points in the paint? Points off turnovers? Fast break points? Second-chance points? Turnovers? Name a stat and the Wildcats won it, save one less board.

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Villanova coach Jay Wright discussed after the game the leadership he is receiving from Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. All three are in their third year of playing at Nova, and for Booth and Bridges, their fourth in school.

“We’ve got our leadership in a good spot,’’ Wright said after Bridges scored 28 points, Booth 20 and Brunson 12 to go along with five assists and three turnovers. “They all kept our focus defensively even when we had a lead.’’

Nova seems to always have players who are willing to sit, work on their game, mature and get in position to help the Wildcats compete for a Big East and national title.

And ultimately they can possibly put themselves in position to be pros.

“We get a lot of those kind of guys who are smart enough to know I have a chance to be a pro but it’s going to take some time,’’ said Wright. “I might be a little thin. I might need to work on my jumper. But I want to invest that time and I want to be in college. It’s that combination. Mikal is a great example. So is Phil and even Jalen, who is going to graduate after this year in this third year.’’

Bridges has steadily improved the past three seasons. His numbers have climbed from 6 to 10 to 18. He is shooting over 50 percent. He’s logging nearly 30 minutes a game. He’s efficient in nearly every offensive category.

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“Every time he catches the ball he’s a threat now, last year he would catch it and think I’ve got to get it to Kris Jenkins or Josh Hart,’’ said Wright. “This year every he catches it he’s on the attack. He’s complete.’’

Bridges credited his commitment in the gym over the offseason to making him much more of a complete player, working on his shooting, ball handling and overall athleticism and strength.

He’s a fourth-year junior and stronger because of the redshirt season. That gave him the time to fully develop into ultimately the player that he has become.

So what’s next? Villanova still has to play at Temple in a Big Five matchup. But this team is ready for the rigors of the Big East, with games against Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence and Creighton. All four could nip the Wildcats on their respective home courts. But let’s not kid ourselves. Villanova is the class of this league.

If Omari Spellman, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree continue to develop into impact front court players, something Wright said can happen over the next few weeks, then this team will be primed for another deep run.

“We’ve got a good six,’’ said Wright. “We just need to get the next three ready for the Big East.’’

Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he was impressed with how Villanova sticks with its plan. Their experience doesn’t allow them to detour. They are, as many coaches covet, old and they stay old.

“They are all playing together with a purpose,’’ Few said.

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Few had one of those teams last season. The Zags played for the national title against North Carolina, one year after Villanova did the same and beat the Tar Heels in the title game. Gonzaga was off Tuesday night. The Zags turned the ball over too many times and shooting 6 of 22 on 3s isn’t going to beat Villanova.’’

Bridges said the Wildcats simply need to learn how to “keep the foot on the gas and don’t get relaxed. We can’t be comfortable with where we’re at.’’

The Wildcats aren’t satisfied. They aren’t a finished product. But they are in an elite class right now, one that doesn't show signs of leaving anytime soon.

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