CHICAGO -- Jay Wright summed up his program perfectly in what he likely thought was a throwaway comment after Villanova’s 103-85 win against DePaul in Chicago.
“When we recruit someone, we try to look at what we think they can be,” Wright said. "And our players would tell you we’re really hard on them to try to get them to that point. And he’s there.”
"He" is Mikal Bridges – the once offensively-challenged defensive specialist who’s turned into perhaps the best two-way player in the country in a three-year span. Bridges canned four more 3s on Wednesday and is shooting better than 45 percent from range on a hefty number of attempts.
Nobody is better at developing talent than Villanova, and Bridges is the model. But there’s a lot more where he came from.
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Jalen Brunson was a solid point guard as a freshman. And if it weren’t for Trae Young, he might be the Naismith Award frontrunner as a junior. Brunson was efficient in his first year – in a way we would consider normal for a college freshman. He shot 45 percent from the floor and 38 percent from the 3.
As a junior, he’s shooting better than 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point land. Bridges went from so-so to great; Brunson went from solid to amazing.
The DePaul game was a homecoming for Brunson, who’s from the Chicagoland area. Some players might get preoccupied in such circumstances. Not Villanova’s captain.
“Deep down it means a lot,” Brunson said of playing in downtown Chicago. “But the most important thing is just going on the court and not worrying about anything on the outside. I want to play for my teammates and my coaches."
Run down the roster, and the stories are similar. No high-level program uses the redshirt as often, or as effectively as the Wildcats. An example: Omari Spellman – a 6-9, 245-pound bruiser who happens to be one of the best 3-point shooters on the team.
Spellman wasn’t considered a shooter coming out of high school. He’s draining better than 50 percent from distance as a redshirt freshman, and anchors Villanova’s interior defense.
“We’ve had guys who play that position [center] who can go out and shoot it, but not ones that big,” Wright said of Spellman. “Guys that can play in the post, defend inside and step out are really valuable. We’re really proud of his development. We knew he could shoot it, but we didn’t know if he could shoot it this well, this early.”
Donte DiVincenzo, another former redshirt, is on track to be the next Wildcat star once Brunson and Bridges move on. He’s averaging about 18 points per 40 minutes on high efficiency, and can score at all three levels.
He played in nine games as a freshman.
Eric Paschall is the kind of defensively versatile, offensively threatening chess piece every team needs; he can shoot, guard multiple positions, and torch a foe on a mismatch.
He once played at Fordham. No disrespect to Fordham, but it’s not Villanova. He’s improved immensely since becoming a Wildcat.
Phil Booth, who was limited last season by injury, is back to his national championship form. He scored 17 points on nine shot attempts against DePaul, and is flirting with 50 percent from 3.
In his last full season prior to this one, he shot 37 percent from the field.
But the guy Wright was most excited after the game was Jermaine Samuels, a 6-5 freshman forward. Samuels was averaging less than a point per game coming into Wednesday, but scored 11 on three shots against the Blue Demons. There’s efficiency, and then there’s that.
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If Samuels can pop, he’d give Villanova another switchable wing with some offensive juice – the hardest thing to find in college basketball today.
“He [Samuel] is one of those constant workers,” Booth said. “His athleticism, the way he can defend, the way he can shoot the ball. We love what Jermaine brings to the team.”
“I love that we’re talking about Jermaine,” a smiling Wright chimed in.
Picture your favorite team – whether it’s Duke, North Carolina, Gonzaga or Monmouth or whoever – and imagine: what if every rotation player reached his absolute full potential? There aren’t 351 good Division I basketball teams. But if just about any of them realized their full potential, they’d at least be good – if not great. Villanova has brought that idea to life.
Most coaches recruit players and know what they could become in the best case scenario – but rarely does it happen. Villanova recruits players, knows what they can become in the best case scenario, and it almost always happens.
That’s a more valuable quality than nabbing the highest-ranked prospects. And it’s the reason Villanova is the No. 1 team in America, looking down at the rest of the pack.
“I think, offensively, this is the most efficient team we’ve had,” Wright said.
“But defensively, we’re not close to where we need to be.”
Reason for concern for most programs? Sure. Reason for concern for Villanova?
Wake us up if this is still a problem come March. If the past five years of rapid player development are any indication, Villanova will be holding Big East powerhouses under 60 in no time.