It’s not just the big-time talent. Villanova has it. Anyone can see it. What might make this overflow of talent special and has caused the Villanova men’s basketball team to rise to the top of the national rankings is the hunger. You can see that, too.
There’s a long way to go, but the defining characteristic of the 2017-18 Villanova Wildcats might be that every single player has something to prove. Even the ones who played significant minutes two seasons back in Houston. Everyone has a new role. Some are new starters. Some have greater responsibility. Add the guys who are on the court for the first time.
You knew that Mikal Bridges had skills and obvious pro potential — he’d long ago proven that. Go back to the 2016 NCAA Elite Eight game against Kansas — Villanova doesn’t get past that game without Bridges. Did you know Bridges could take over a game offensively as he did against Gonzaga? He apparently did.
You’ve heard how this is Jalen Brunson’s team. You can easily see how Brunson wants to show that such a team can be a great team. Phil Booth? Even for a guy who was the leading scorer in the 2016 national title game, Booth gets to show he’s meant to be a starter.
Jay Wright will never complain about trying to repeat as national champion, as Villanova was aiming to do last season, but this season is different, which probably makes getting to No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings right now a little more special.
Those different roles make all his guys hungry?
“Yeah, definitely,’’ Wright said in a hallway of the Liacouras Center on Wednesday night, after Villanova took out Temple, 87-67.
And does that help Wright push buttons as a coach?
“I actually don’t have to push buttons,’’ Wright said. “Last season, I kind of had to push some buttons. And nothing negative. You’ve got three guys — they’ve already won it. And they’re winning. It kind of got to a point, we’re waiting for the tournament. … Nothing bad.”
“But these guys are hungry,’’ Wright said. “It’s kind of easy. It’s enjoyable. Because you see it. It’s kind of like the team was — the team that did win it — when they’d lost in the second round [in 2015], and you could just tell they were just hungry to prove themselves. I think these guys want to prove themselves.”
Was Wright ranting on Sunday, after a close win over La Salle?
“We had a good film session Monday,’’ Wright said, admitting there are times he has ranted. “This group is so intelligent and humble and eager to please. We had a film session; that’s what we talked about, how La Salle played us, how we started the game, when we got a lead, how we relaxed, our attention to detail on the scouting report.”
About getting on them, “you really don’t have to,’’ Wright said.
For those who say this Villanova team has more talent than the 2016 NCAA champions, slow down. Maybe that team didn’t have a 6-foot-9 freshman like Omari Spellman dropping in shots from all over the court, but it had Daniel Ochefu protecting the rim. That team had Bridges and Booth coming off the bench.
With this team, you’re not just picking your poison. It’s more like walking into a fine poison shop and being greeted by an expert salesman determined to show you his finest poisons.
In Wednesday’s first half, Temple withstood an early Brunson onslaught and fought back to trail, 28-21, after a three-point spree by Quinton Rose. Brunson saw a matchup he liked and took the ball to the right side. He took Alani Moore to the hole. Temple big man Damion Moore did the right thing, coming over to seal the hole.
Except that left Spellman open on the closest wing and no defender rotated over. As Spellman did all night, he made the Owls pay. He finished with 27 eye-opening points.
Next possession, after a steal by Booth, Brunson hit another three. Brunson scored 31 points, 22 in the first half. Throw in five assists, no turnovers. Temple never got as close again. All the talk about dominating the City Series is fine and good — the school from the Main Line is pretty good against other cities, too.
Think about getting to No. 1. Sometimes, coaches deny paying attention to such things. This week, Wright paid attention. “You don’t really care, but when it happens, it’s nice,’’ Wright said, adding that he wondered whether a nine-point win over La Salle might cost his team the top spot.
Getting to the top during the regular season doesn’t matter if you don’t do any damage in March. But Villanova has gotten to No. 1 during the regular season or at the end for the third straight year. This time, the Wildcats did it with one starter left from Houston, with guys hungry for their own glory.