Villanova could start next season in the Associated Press top five, but 'ifs' are attached

Villanova guard Phil Booth hugs coach Jay Wright during the Wildcats’ NCAA championship win on Monday. Booth will be counted upon to provide leadership for the Wildcats next season.

In the modern-day world of college basketball, it is nearly impossible to predict the fortunes of a team for the next season once the final buzzer sounds on its current season.

That’s especially true for Villanova, the last team standing after the final game. The task of figuring out what the national champion Wildcats could achieve next season will rely on if:

— Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges both leave for the NBA.

— Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman do not.

— Phil Booth opts to return for a fifth season.

And of course, the biggest “if” is whether coach Jay Wright will be swayed by the armored trucks filled with money that will be dumped on his doorstep by NBA teams seeking to breathe new life into their franchises.

Given the most likely scenario now — Brunson and Bridges depart, DiVincenzo and Spellman stick around, Booth returns, and so does Wright — the Wildcats will be a top-five preseason pick in most polls with a nucleus of Booth, Spellman, Eric Paschall and DiVincenzo, named the most outstanding player of the Final Four.

The first priority for Wright will be to ingrain in his seniors — Booth and Paschall — what is expected of them as leaders of the team. Booth has experience in that role with Brunson and Bridges, with the trio earning consistent praise from their coach for their leadership in the postseason.

Wright called Booth “the glue on this team.”

“Personality-wise, he lights up a room,” he said. “Everybody on the team loves him. And on the court, he’s got an intelligence and experience level and respect that they all migrate to.”

After returning from a broken bone in his right hand on Feb. 21, the 6-foot-3 Booth did not shoot nearly as effectively as he did before his injury, but he showed his value on defense, particularly in the NCAA tournament when he had to guard players like West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans, and Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Eric Paschall, center, and Jalen Brunson, right, and the Villanova bench celebrate after a Donte DiVincenzo 3-pointer against Michigan during the 2nd half of the National Championship game of the NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2018.

Paschall, the most improved player on the Villanova roster this season, impressed everyone in the program with his dedication to defense and rebounding. He had career highs of 24 points in the semifinal win over Kansas and 14 rebounds in the East Regional final vs. Texas Tech.

The shoes of Brunson will be difficult ones to fill, but DiVincenzo is likely the top choice to take over the point. The 6-5 redshirt junior-to-be showed a keen eye for finding open teammates as the season wore on, averaging 4.3 assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1 in his last 14 games.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova looks towards the national broadcasters and winks after hitting a 3-pointer against Michigan during the 2nd half of the National Championship game of the NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2018.

As sixth man, DiVincenzo was able to ignite energy into his team as soon as he came off the bench. He might have to pace himself a little more and be more mindful of not turning the ball over, but his passing, shooting, and defense will be pivotal.

Spellman, who dropped more than 40 pounds from the start of last season, averaged 10.9 points and 8.0 rebounds and was one of the Big East’s best at shooting the three (43.3 percent) and blocking shots (1.5 per game).

“If not for him and his development, we probably wouldn’t be at this point,” Wright said before the Kansas game. “Other guys each improved, but not at the rate that Omari has. He’s probably had the biggest impact.”

This season’s three true freshmen — Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels — will compete for the fifth starting spot and important roles off the bench. Dylan Painter, a 6-10 center who played in 23 games as a freshman but redshirted this season, has bulked up to 240 pounds and could be in the rotation. Junior forward Tim Delaney will see as much time as his surgically repaired hips allow.

Three top-ranked freshmen will enter Villanova next season, the tops among them being Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star point guard from Hackensack, N.J., who pulled out of a commitment to Arizona after an FBI investigation led to the arrest of the assistant coach who recruited him.

It is unclear whether Quinerly received any money to attend Arizona, but a published report said Villanova had a law firm examine whether any actions involving the player would result in sanctions that would make him ineligible. Expected to sign later this month, Quinerly would be a candidate for playing time at the point.

The other incoming freshmen are 6-8 power forward Cole Swider of Barrington, R.I., and 6-5 small forward Brandon Slater of Fairfax, Va., both four-star players. Villanova’s recruiting class is rated 10th by ESPN and 12th by both Rivals and 247Sports.

Of course, Villanova’s projections are subject to change given the crazy offseasons that seem to be a part of the sport. But in the likely — for now — event that Wright stays, a third national championship in four seasons would be possible.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Donte DiVincenzo, center, of Villanova dunks against Charles Matthews, left, of Michigan during the 1st half of the National Championship game of the NCAA Tournament at the Alamodome on April 2, 2018.