Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman decisions make for real challenges ahead for Villanova

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Jay Wright (center), flanked by Eric Paschall (left) and Mikal Bridges during Villanova’s championship parade, has just two returning starters for the 2018-19 season – a stark departure from seasons past.

It sounded like a bit of challenge to his own locker room, the words Jay Wright used Wednesday afternoon after two more of his 2018 NCAA champs had announced they were leaving for the NBA.

“Really, we’ve got two proven guys returning,’’ Villanova’s coach said, mentioning starters Phil Booth and Eric Paschall.

In recent years, Wright said, he pretty much knew how the minutes would be parceled out. Right now, he can’t.

Let’s cut to the chase. Don’t expect Villanova to win a national title in 2018-19. Final Four? When Loyola makes it, never say never … but no. Too much for even you ‘Nova diehards to expect. Too much change, too much learning of new roles. Too high a bar. Don’t go there.

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There still is a lot of talent, returning and incoming. Just look at it like this: Villanova had a dynamic future first-rounder as sixth man on both championship teams, Mikal Bridges in 2016, Donte DiVincenzo in ’18. Replacing Omari Spellman as a two-way big man, a rebounding force who could step out and hit a three, is a massive challenge. This week’s announcements, that DiVicenzo and Spellman would join Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges in leaving early for the NBA, radically change the expectations for what Villanova can accomplish next season.

Villanova actually could have withstood losing the national player of the year and a wing who is a presumed lottery pick. Now? Dial it back, ‘Nova fans. Expecting the next group just to slot into the top 10, even with a big-time recruiting class coming in, is almost disrespecting the work put in by the recent teams.

You shouldn’t argue with the decisions made by either DiVincenzo or Spellman. Both showed more than potential last season — they put their skills to productive use in a title run. Having a featured role at Villanova next season wouldn’t necessarily improve DiVincenzo’s stock. If the NBA indicates it’s time for you to go, you should go.

It’s interesting to look back on what Wright told me the week before the Final Four when I asked him about kind of walking the high wire sometimes with DiVincenzo: “He’s just a sophomore. We live with it. It’s high-risk, high-reward. Mostly reward. He’s just learning. He’s the kind of player who is so dynamic, you’ve got to let him be aggressive and make aggressive mistakes rather than be tentative and try to play perfect.”

Within days, everything had changed. Wright knew it. DiVincenzo knew it.

>>READ MORE: For Jay Wright, success brings uncertainty

Despite being a one-year player, Spellman isn’t getting any younger either. Let’s assume he factored his own age into his decision. He will turn 21 in July, so he would be 22 next July. This year, Bridges is the first projected player to go who is older than 19. The NBA values youth.

Maybe you started to guess DiVincenzo was gone when Villanova signed Albany graduate transfer Joe Cremo, eligible next season. The 6-foot-4 guard scored 17.8 points a game last season. Expect him to see regular time. I asked on Twitter this week if Cremo’s skills would translate to ‘Nova. Here’s how former Maine coach Bob Walsh, who faced Cremo the last three seasons in the America East, answered:

“Yes. Elite shooter with deep range. Natural scorer who can finish in the lane and post up. Not as bouncy as DiVincenzo, but wiry strong. Gym rat, great culture fit. Will certainly produce. Double-figure scorer.”

Collin Gillespie already has proven his significant worth. Guard Jahvon Quinerly comes in with a lot of expectations, and Cole Swider is supposed to be a big-time shooter. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will suddenly have a bigger role inside. Jermaine Samuels has a chance to earn real minutes. Can Dylan Painter help inside? We’ll find out. Is the next Josh Hart on this roster? We’ll find out, but that’s a high bar.

The biggest question: Can Villanova’s defense come together again? That took time this past season. Future NBA players committed to it. Paschall and Booth are proven but Booth, for instance, wasn’t known for his defense as a first-year player. You can’t forget that Spellman had two years of practicing and conditioning to get to where he was a difference-maker.

Nobody is feeling sorry for Villanova. The Wildcats’ two titles in three years with different leading casts are unprecedented in recent times. Florida went back-to-back in 2006 and ’07, but that was basically the same cast. Brunson was the only Villanova player who started both title games.

This new crew gets to make its own mark. It won’t have to beat the ‘16 or ‘18 teams, just the other guys. Still, a little tempering of expectations would be the smart approach. (Villanova fans are known for that, right?)

Wright himself said this week that a little humility wouldn’t be a bad thing right now.

>>READ MORE: Championship rematch on tap for next season