PITTSBURGH – Back in 2016 when Villanova freshman recruit Omari Spellman got the word that the NCAA was forcing him to be an academic redshirt, he could have moped about what he felt was an unjust ruling that would keep him out of basketball games for a season. Or he could take advantage of the opportunity to still practice with the team and prepare himself for the 2017-18 season.

Fellow big man Eric Paschall immediately contacted Spellman to offer some advice.

Paschall had transferred to Villanova from Fordham and because of transfer rules had to sit out the 2015-16 season. He could practice but did not get to play a game with the eventual 2016 NCAA championship team.

"I sent him a text saying, 'I know it is disappointing, but it's all good,' " Paschall said. "I told him to take this year to learn the system, work on your body and work on yourself. That's what he did and he transformed himself."

Still, practicing and actually playing in games are different things.

Even though Spellman had the adjective "redshirt" in front of his class, he was still a freshman who had to learn the college game and figure out his place on a team that was coming off of three straight 30-win seasons.

Spellman's goal for the 2017-18 season was to continually grow and evolve into a vital cog in the Wildcats' system.

As Nova lines up for Saturday's game against Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Cats have no concerns that Spellman is the player they need him to be at this moment of the season.

"Omari is one of the biggest parts of our team, one of our most important players," Villanova junior Phil Booth said. "We're constantly in his ear as a young dude.

"The progression he's made over this year has been tremendous. We go as he goes, how he defends, rebounds. He's done a lot of great things. We are constantly staying on him because we know how important he is to this team."

Under coach Jay Wright, Villanova has been a guard-dominated program, but he's always relied on having that big guy in the middle who could rebound and guard the paint.

It was a role Villanova needed Spellman to grow into.

"We have a triangle of core values," said Spellman, who is 6-9 and 245 pounds. "The bottom of the core value is to defend and rebound, then it is to play hard and together.

"I know that even if I am not having a great game scoring, I can defend and rebound. I can play hard and together with my teammates That's what we pride ourselves on."

Spellman averages 10.7 points and 7.9 rebounds, and has 50 blocked shots.

"In the beginning, Omari had a long way to go, he worked his way up," said redshirt junior Mikal Bridges, who went through a similar experience after he sat out his freshman season. "He's become a really good defender, unbelievable rebounder. We all knew he could score, but his defense and rebounding were big things that helped this team get to where we are now."