Mikal Bridges of Villanova will soon play his final college basketball game. That will arrive either Saturday night in the national semifinals against Kansas, or Monday in the championship game against Michigan or Loyola-Chicago.
Regardless of the day or the outcome, Bridges will suddenly become a cherished part of the Wildcats’ past as he moves toward his own bright professional future. In typical Villanova fashion, the run-up to this head-spinning transition has been remarkably smooth. If you watched the Wildcats practice, and didn’t know which player would soon be a lottery pick in the NBA draft, you wouldn’t be tipped off by how he was treated or by how he carried himself.
Jay Wright has coached long enough to know this makes him a lucky guy.
“They’re all different that way,” Wright said. “He’s elite.”
One of the two seasons in which Wright was an assistant under Rollie Massimino at UNLV, the star player was a talented, but somewhat different swingman named J.R. Rider. The 6-foot-5 Rider averaged 29 points that year, second in the nation, and would soon be selected with the No. 5 pick in the draft.
Rider showed up for a morning shoot-around one day during his final season at UNLV wearing purple silk pajamas. Even by the standards of Rider and the Runnin’ Rebels, this was a little out there, but he was a star and he was about to be a well-paid NBA star, and that’s what he was wearing.
“All right, Rider. I see you,” Massimino growled. “I’m watching you. You better not mess up any drills today.”
“Coach,” Wright said in Massimino’s ear. “He’s wearing purple pajamas. He’s already won.”
So, Wright knows what it means to have a player whose focus is not necessarily on the job at hand, but on the one he is about to get.
Contrast that with Tuesday’s workout in the Davis Center at Villanova, the last hard run before the team traveled to San Antonio. The players were scrimmaging in reversible practice jerseys, the starting team in blue and the second unit in white. Bridges didn’t get a rebound that he should have gotten.
“Hey, Mikal. You missed that rebound. Go white,” Wright said.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Bridges said, and flipped his jersey inside out.
There are a lot of reasons Villanova has reached this point of the college season. It is a talented, well-coached team top to bottom. But a big reason is that the stars allowed themselves to be coached like the rest of the roster, and there is no bigger star, nor better example of that, than Bridges.
“Taking him off first team and putting him on second is kind of what we do in practice, but you don’t always do that to the best player, the guy who’s going to be a first-round pick, but we do it with him,” Wright said. “He’s smart and he realizes, ‘The more I do this, the better it makes us. The more Coach can do it with me, the better it makes us.’ He’s got a really high emotional IQ.”
Wright had just nine players make it to the NBA in his 16 previous seasons with Villanova. Four were undrafted, two were second-round picks, two went low in the first round, and his highest-rated player, Randy Foye in 2006, was taken with the seventh pick in the NBA draft. Bridges is projected to be taken with somewhere around the 10th pick in the coming draft. Jalen Brunson is also projected to be an NBA draft pick, although where he will go, and even if he will go, is not a foregone conclusion. Bridges is the NBA prize this season, by everyone’s assessment, and that means a lot, except to him.
“It’s nice to see [the speculation], but me thinking about it and me talking about it won’t help this team be where we want to be,” Bridges said. “My teammates and my coaches, they see it, too. They’re human. But they don’t talk about it, either. The key is staying humble and just doing the best you can.”
That’s a long way from purple pajamas, and not every one of Wright’s future NBA players at Villanova was as grounded, either.
“One of the things we try to do here is get the guys to understand that their best chance to be the best person and player they can be is to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Wright said. “So usually they’re pretty good, but he is on a different level. He is the most selfless outstanding player I’ve ever seen. Some are not as good as others. Randy Foye was one of the best. Kyle Lowry wasn’t one of the best, but he was young. They’re all different. Mikal is elite.”
Bridges was a reserve on the 2015-16 team as a redshirt freshman. He played just 15 minutes and scored two points in the championship game, even though Wright had already recognized that Bridges would soon be “very special,” and that his time would come. That time is now, and this is the last time for him as a college player. Bridges is ready for the next challenge, even as he hews himself to the team aspect of this one.
“It’s never about me or any individual. It’s all about the team,” Bridges said.
Whether they win or they lose, that might be the most remarkable thing about this collection of players and coaches. Some of them have horizons ahead of them. Some of them are reaching their highest point. You can’t tell one from the other.