Jay Wright unequivocally believes that Villanova used the experience and familiarity gained from going through its 2016 run to the national championship to win it all again in 2018.
And the knowledge gained from what happened two years ago also helped Wright plan out how the Wildcats handled the post-championship experience after cutting down the nets in San Antonio last month.
While that information has been helpful, it hasn’t quite prepared Wright for the possibilities that exist as he guides his players – returning and new – through the team’s off-season workouts. The burning question for the coach is: Just how many players will be returning?
Villanova could lose as many as four players, not just two, from their 2018 championship team. It was a given that both guard Jalen Brunson, the consensus national player of the year, and swingman Mikal Bridges would give up their final year of eligibility and declare for the NBA draft. But as for forward Omari Spellman and guard Donte DiVincenzo, they entered the draft process as expected without hiring an agent so they could gauge their NBA chances. However, as the NBA draft combine begins this week in Chicago, the likelihood of both players’ leaving could be rising.
Asked in a recent interview about the chances of losing Spellman and DiVincenzo, Wright said, “My gut feeling right now is that it’s 50-50.”
“That’s just based on what we’re hearing from NBA teams,” Wright said. “I really think it’s going to go down to the wire, and I think they’re both going to be in a good position. I think they’re both going to have difficult decisions. It’s a real possibility, and we’re planning for it.
“We’re not built like a Kentucky or a Duke to have one-and-done guys coming in. This puts us in a situation where we take a little hit. We’re just younger than we want to be. But that’s a casualty of Donte and Omari kind of speeding up their process.
“We’ve kind of structured it thinking we would have those two next year, probably just for one year. But we just might get caught young. That’s just part of it. We’re going to have to deal with it. I don’t think there’s anything that we’d want to do to avoid that.”
Spellman and DiVincenzo have to notify Villanova by May 30 if they intend to return. But if they decide to hire agents and remain in the NBA draft, it would mean the Wildcats would have lost four of their top six players from the team that went 36-4 and ripped through its six NCAA games with double-digit wins in all.
They would return two seniors in forward Eric Paschall and guard Phil Booth. Their only junior would be seldom-used forward Tim Delaney. They’d have four sophomores: guard Collin Gillespie, forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and swingman Jermaine Samuels, and forward Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season.
Three freshmen — guard Jahvon Quinerly, swingman Brandon Slater and forward Cole Swider — are coming in, and a graduate transfer, senior Joe Cremo from Albany, is scheduled to join them.
So only four members of last year’s rotation – Paschall, Booth, Gillespie and Cosby-Roundtree – are definitely back. However, to Wright, who was contacted after the Final Four by the New York Knicks but told officials there he was not interested in their head-coaching job, it’s the test he faces waiting to determine the degree of rebuilding he must do.
He must do it without a key member of his staff, assistant coach Ashley Howard, who moved on after five seasons to become head coach at La Salle.
Still, as the Wildcats used their 2016 experience to plan their off-season off the court more intelligently, selecting award events and speaking responsibilities more thoughtfully without taking too much time away from basketball, they did the same on the court.
Villanova began its off-season workouts later than usual once again, and Wright has been careful not to work his players too hard at the outset except for those preparing for pre-draft workouts. Once the players return next month for summer school, the workouts will ramp up.
“If any of those [draft-process] guys come back, we’re going to give them off,” he said. “Then we’ll start with the guys that are coming back that we’ve gone low-key with. It’s a totally different type of team because we’re going to have so many new guys coming in. The new guys are going to go intense and the older guys, we’re going to try to keep them fresh.”
The challenge of losing more players might be different from 2016, but the lessons learned from the earlier title team continue to be invaluable. In 2018, Wright said, “nothing was new to us. … We weren’t distracted by new experiences.”
“There would be no ’18 without that ’16 experience,” he said. “I thought the efficiency with which we played in this year’s tournament was a direct result of Jalen, Phil, Mikal, even Eric and Donte being on that team and through that experience. It really helped this team this year.
“When you’re in it, you’re not thinking about that as much. You’re thinking about the next game. But when you look back on it, you realize it’s every little thing — the plane pulling up in San Antonio, the big reception when you get off the plane, the police escorts, the security at the hotel, even the long walk from the locker room to the court, they’d all done it. So I really think that ’16 experience and that ’16 team was a big part of this ’18 team and this ’18 run.”
Now, Wright waits. If both Spellman and DiVincenzo decide to come back, and once Cremo’s paperwork is approved, the Wildcats would have the maximum of 13 basketball scholarships allowed by the NCAA in use for the 2018-19 season, the first time that has happened since Wright took over at Villanova in 2000.
“We’ve never had it because we purposely don’t do it,” he said. “It’s part of the challenge when you have to wait until May 30 to find out what these guys are going to do. But it means things are going well.”
Yes, they are.