Villanova benefits from expanded rotation

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Villanova’s Eric Paschall (left), Donte DiVincenzo (center) and Jalen Brunson look to the bench during the second half against St. John’s on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

NEW YORK - When Jay Wright planned his most likely Villanova playing rotation last summer, he figured on having freshman Omari Spellman available for significant minutes at power forward and on slotting junior Phil Booth along the perimeter as part of the guard rotation.

As for redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo, sophomore forward Eric Paschall, and freshman forward Dylan Painter, we'll see how it goes. Thursday in Madison Square Garden, as the Wildcats ran roughly over an outmatched St. John's team, 108-67, we saw how it went.

It went like this: Spellman was ruled ineligible before the season began, opening the way for Paschall to become a regular in the frontcourt. Then, Booth was sidelined with a knee injury after playing only three games and DiVincenzo slipped in alongside Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart. As for Painter, who was even money to redshirt if nothing had changed, he made the team, bided his time, and suddenly got minutes when forward Darryl Reynolds missed five games late in the season to injury.

Against St. John's, in the quarterfinal round of the Big East tournament, DiVincenzo scored a career high 25 points, Paschall put in 17 and Painter finished with 10, which equaled his total points scored previously this season. The three combined for 16 rebounds and played defense well enough to stay on the court, which is how Wright decides who gets minutes.

Everything might be the result of unintended consequences, but Villanova finds itself with a deeper rotation at a time of year when depth becomes an amazing asset.

"We always plan to have that at the beginning of the season," Wright said. "When we didn't have Omari, we thought, OK, we can handle that. Then we didn't have Phil, and it got a little shaky. We said it's going to take time to develop this and you never know if it's going to work. But . . . these guys, Donte and Eric Paschall and Dylan Painter, have really developed this rotation for us. If they weren't playing at the level they are, we wouldn't be able to do it. And it really does give us the ability to stay fresh in tournaments. Playing seven guys, you can get away with that during the league season, but in tournaments like this, that's when it gets to you."

It gets to you because a game will come along when someone gets into early foul trouble, or someone is injured or ill, and a coach had better have something to bail himself out. A little bit of that led to the extra minutes and added opportunities that were spread around the bench. Starting swingman Mikal Bridges was suffering from a stomach virus and lasted only 1 minute, 20 seconds before having to pull himself out. DiVincenzo and Paschall each played 31 minutes, and Painter was in for 22 minutes. His previous high was 13 minutes. Wright took advantage of the blowout to provide some rest for other regulars at the start of the postseason grind.

"Dylan's improvement has been tremendous," Paschall said. "Today, him and me and Donte just kept trying to continue our defense and rebounding for the team. Dylan took advantage of the opportunity. He's been working so hard ever since summer and now he's part of the rotation."

DiVincenzo benefited from the attention St. John's paid to Hart on Thursday. With the Big East player of the year double-teamed every time he touched the ball, DiVincenzo was able to spot up for three-point shots, and he made 5 of 6 attempts. In all, the Wildcats dropped in 15 three-pointers in 29 attempts, their most converted three-pointers in a game since December. The bench scored a season-high 52 points.

"This shows that when you're patient, things come out well," said Brunson. "Paschall is playing a lot more. It pays off having Darryl back. Dylan is getting better every day and we're comfortable having him in there. We're fresher and able to go after it every possession."

Painter was only out there to rebound and play defense, at least the way he saw it, but he was 3 for 3 from the floor and 4 for 4 at the free-throw line for his 10 points. He's a big target on the pick-and-roll and the Villanova guards did a good job finding him.

"I didn't have high expectations [for playing time], but once Omari went out and once Phil went out, I said, OK, I might start seeing something here," Painter said. "I'm not asked to do much, just go in and play defense as hard as I can and rebound the ball. If I do that, they'll be happy with me."

What has become reality this season wasn't the plan at all, but plans sometimes change, and that has certainly been the case for Villanova. The new plan didn't look bad on Thursday. Of course, neither did anything else.

bford@phillynews.com

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