PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Earlier in this decade, the fine run that Jay Wright had Villanova on was starting to slip away. The Wildcats were trending downward beyond the reality of not getting back to the Final Four after they made it in 2009. In fact, from 2010-13, the Wildcats had the worst three-season stretch since Wright’s first three seasons on the Main Line, including a 13-19 season in the middle of that.
And then he brought in the group that changed it all. It’s pretty remarkable, really, and while they haven’t done it alone, the current crop of seniors has now won more games than any other class in Villanova history after Wednesday night’s 66-57 win at Providence. At 118-15, they still have at least ten games to go to add to that total as well.
This group will also leave having never lost a Philadelphia Big 5 game, with all 16 of those wins coming by double digits. They won an in-season tournament every year. And of course, they will leave with at least one national championship ring.
It’s not a group that arrived to much fanfare; none of the seniors were McDonald’s All-Americans or heralded as one-and-done candidates. No one thought Josh Hart was a future Player of the Year candidate – indeed, there might not have been many who thought he was even a future first team All-Big East player. All three contributed as freshmen, then got better every year to where they are key players on a team hoping to repeat as national champions.
While all three did so to different degrees, they all had to wait their turn for an expanded role and the expanded results that often come with it. None of them had big minutes or roles handed to them. In fact, of the current Wildcats, sophomore guard Jalen Brunson is the only player to start more than a small number of games as a freshman.
“It started with Darryl (Reynolds),” said Wright. “Darryl really set the tone, waiting his turn three years. His patience really sets the tone for everybody in the program.”
And while it was a solid group in all, no one thought that they, along with the departed Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, were the core of a national championship team, let alone leaders of a team that could do it again. For that matter, the two classes with the most wins in program history are the class of 2016 and the current senior class.
With all of that in mind, this team is having a remarkable season in a sense not unlike the magical run they went on last year. During the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats were amazing offensively, shooting over 58 percent from the field; this team shoots over 49 percent from the field and turns the ball over less than 11 times a game. In 12 of their 23 games, they have shot 50 percent or better from the field. Remember, this is a team that lost the aforementioned Arcidiacono and Ochefu, who were pivotal to last season’s championship, and they are not being replaced by McDonald’s All-Americans.
Lately, the Wildcats haven’t played their best, losing at Marquette and having to rally to beat Virginia at the buzzer on Sunday before Wednesday night’s win at Providence. That they still manage to win a game like the one on Wednesday night is promising for this team the rest of the way.
“We aren’t playing great basketball right now, but we are finding a way to scrap it out, digging and clawing,” said Wright.
Villanova is doing this with basically seven players. Phil Booth, who had a game-high 20 points in the championship game, has played in just three games due left knee inflammation, and Omari Spellman, one of the most highly-touted recruits of the Jay Wright era, was declared ineligible for this season. The latter development pressed Reynolds into an even bigger role than initially projected for him, and Mikal Bridges has had even more opportunity to break out and done so. For a stretch in the second half on Wednesday, Bridges was the best player on the floor.
While the Wildcats are not deep, the seven who play significant minutes all know how to play – and like the seniors, win.
“Their experience is really unique in college basketball, to think of what the three of them have been through together,” Wright added of the seniors. “We are able to play, especially Kris and Josh at any position on the floor, even point guard, they both have done that for us.”
Naturally, Wright doesn’t want to get too caught up in what this group has accomplished because the season still has a lot of basketball remaining, possibly right up to the last day. The seniors have so elevated the program back up that this team is well on its way to a third straight season with at least 30 wins as we are in early February.
“I don’t want to talk too much about them because they’re not done,” Wright said.