NEW YORK — Commissioner Val Ackerman calls it the “reconfigured’’ Big East. Whatever you want to call the conference, Villanova has completely dominated over its first four seasons, with a 63-9 regular-season record and two tournament championships.
So nobody was surprised Wednesday during media day at Madison Square Garden when it was revealed that the Wildcats were the overwhelming pick by the 10 head coaches to win the regular season again. Seton Hall and Xavier each got a first-place vote. The Cats got the other eight.
“If I had the answer [as to why ‘Nova has dominated], we wouldn’t be talking about why the path goes through them,’’ Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “They have great players. Jay [Wright] does a phenomenal job with the culture and instilling what’s important. You play Villanova, you understand what they’re about. That’s a challenge not just for myself, but for every coach.’’
‘Nova also has the preseason player of the year in Jalen Brunson and preseason freshman of the year in Omari Spellman. As good as last season’s 32-4 team was — and it was really good — this team will be deeper. It will also be bigger and could be better, even without first-round draft choice Josh Hart, 2016 Final Four hero Kris Jenkins, and solid big man Darryl Reynolds.
Brunson, top NBA prospect Mikal Bridges (second team preseason all-league), Eric Paschall, and the emerging Donte DiVincenzo are all back. Phil Booth, brilliant in the 2016 national championship game, had to be shut down last season with knee pain. Spellman had to take a redshirt because of an academic issue.
Put all them on the court with a talented freshman class and you get a team that will be able to play faster and apply more pressure than last season’s undermanned squad.
“Some games when Darryl Reynolds was hurt, we were playing with six scholarship players,’’ Wright said. “We were walking the ball up purposely just to keep guys fresh. I was proud of our guys, how they handled it, but it’s not really how we want to play.’’
Brunson is an understated killer. Now he is, for the first time, the unquestioned star on a team that is likely to be in the top 10 all season.
“We definitely have potential,’’ Brunson said. “I know Omari is doing well. His work ethic has really picked up. He has lost a lot of weight since last year. He’s really gotten his body into playing shape.’’
Booth is a really good shooter who is finally healthy.
“He actually played with a torn meniscus the entire [2015-16] season,’’ Wright said.
Then he got a different injury last season. Booth said the pain from that is long gone and he is ready. “I’m feeling good,’’ he said. “Definitely no problems from the past.’’
All of a sudden Booth and Bridges, who came in together as freshmen, are now the most experienced players on the team as fourth-year juniors.
“I’ve gone through so many leaders,’’ Booth said. “Now we’re the guys who have to do what they did for us. We’re ready for the challenge. We like the challenge.’’