Last year at this time, Villanova was the defending national champion.
This time around …
“It just feels like we’re another team,” coach Jay Wright said Friday afternoon, following the team’s opening practice. “I’d rather be coming off a national championship. But there’s a side of (this) that’s enjoyable too, where you’re like, ‘OK, we have to prove ourselves all over again.’
“There is a difference. The year that you come back off a national championship, there’s nothing like that, no matter who you lose. Even before you start playing games you still feel the attention.”
Last season the Wildcats had to replace four-year starter Ryan Arcidacono and Daniel Ochefu. Now they have to replace Josh Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, and Kris Jenkins, who hit the shot that won them the title 17 months ago. They went 32-4 despite losing two starters, one to injury and another as an academic redshirt. They figure to be somewhere in the Top 10 in the opening poll. So what’s going to change?
“Nothing different at all,” said junior lead guard Jalen Brunson, who should be one of the top players in the conference. “It’s the same, no matter who’s here, as long as we keep the culture. Everybody looks ready to go.”
The next journey begins on Nov. 10 in South Philly against Columbia. The Wildcats will play almost all of their home games at the Wells Fargo Center, where they normally play a handful, while the Pavilion undergoes a major renovation.
Last March they lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament, for the third time in four years. But they did get that ring. They’ve been either a one or a two seed each of the last four years. The only other team that can say that is Kansas.
“I think we’re getting back to being hungry,” Brunson said. “We didn’t do anything in the tournament. That should be our mindset every time we go on the floor. As the leader of the team, that’s always going to be in the back of my mind.
“ (Success) happens for a reason. As long as we’re doing what we do.”
There are no seniors, although Brunson – like Arcidiacono – has pretty much been one since he arrived. Three others are fourth-year juniors: wing man Makil Bridges, guard Phil Booth and forward Eric Paschall. Booth, who scored a team-high 20 points in the 2016 final against North Carolina, missed most of last season with a knee injury that now is apparently no longer an issue. And big man Omari Spellman, whom the NCAA ruled ineligible as a freshman, can finally get his career going.
“We have a brand new team, a totally different team,” said Booth, who underwent arthroscopic surgery in June. “It’s always a challenge to see how much better we can get each year.
“We can’t really think about the end of the season. Every little thing every day is important. That’s kind of how we live. It’s hard to replace good people. But others have to take the next step and come together to fill those voids. It’s not easy, but it’s something we have to do.”
They must be doing it, because the last four seasons they’ve averaged just over 32 wins.
“People expect us to be good,” Wright acknowledged. “And that’s a good thing. We know if we struggle, which we could, people will be really disappointed. We’re not afraid to deal with that.
“We want to put it all out there on the line. Bring it on. Let’s see what we can do.”