Bridges has become Villanova's defensive stopper

The story of redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges in Villanova's NCAA surge is a simple one: He has grown in confidence so he's playing at his peak, which means an increase in minutes and a more significant role in the Wildcats' success that has taken them to the Final Four.

And the way Bridges, a 6-foot-7 swingman from Great Valley High School in Malvern, tells it, he gets his confidence from his teammates, whose trust in him has grown.

"Coach and the players, they all trust me now and they have more trust in me to keep me out there," Bridges said this week. "I have that trust on defense and I think that really gives me the confidence to go out there and do what I'm doing. They have the confidence in me to do the things that I'm doing right now."

After sitting out his first season on campus while still practicing with the team, Bridges has become the man the Wildcats call on to shut down an opponent's top scorer. It started in January when he was assigned to D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the leading scorer for Georgetown. It has continued with Providence's Kris Dunn and Seton Hall's Isaiah Whitehead.

Since the start of the NCAA tournament, Bridges has stepped up his game on the defensive end, taking part in a terrific team effort against Kansas that saw him guarding Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks' top scorer, and point guard Frank Mason III at different times. He finished that game with five steals, including his dive onto a ball tipped away from Mason by Ryan Arcidiacono with 4.6 seconds left.

Bridges has come a long way from the player who watched guys like Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart "all blow past me in practice," he said. Coach Jay Wright has seen the improvement.

"This year our goal was to get him out there and get him experience and see what he does," Wright said. "What he's done is, about halfway through the year, he started to develop everyone's trust. He is so solid offensively, he makes free throws, but defensively he's been a stud and he guards everybody.

"In this program, when you defend and rebound like that, everyone trusts you. More so than the coaching staff, the players trust you. I trust guys when I know their teammates trust them, and those guys trust him."

One of the trusting teammates is Hart, who goes against Bridges every day in practice and has credited Bridges with helping him get better with his shooting and decision-making.

"He's lanky, he's athletic, he has all the great attributes of a great defender," said Hart, the Wildcats' leading scorer. "Sometimes guys have those attributes but they don't pan out because they don't have the fight in them to be a great defender. He has that, he takes pride in that. That pride is able to kind of set him apart from a lot of guys."

And that has added to his playing time. Bridges averaged 19.7 minutes in the regular season but is up to 22.4 minutes per game in the postseason.

He also has been a contributor at the offensive end. For the season, he is averaging 6.3 points and shooting 51.3 percent overall from the field. However, he has connected on 70.6 percent of his two-point shots, including 68.4 percent in the postseason.

When Bridges spoke to the media this week, it was too early for him to know whether he would be guarding Buddy Hield, the nation's second-leading scorer, when the Wildcats take on Oklahoma Saturday night in the national semifinals at NRG Stadium in Houston.

But whatever player he guards, the approach will be the same.

"I just go through the scouting report and get prepared and stay focused," he said. "It's doing the little things and playing hard on defense. It's having trust in my guys, doing whatever Coach wants me to do. I know the other guys are going to help me out. It's just me knowing that I have my teammates having my back."

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq