NEW YORK – Jay Wright had to do a double count when asked about having five redshirt players on his roster.
“On this team or overall?” the Villanova coach said. “Who?”
The count started with junior Eric Paschall, who actually sat out the 2015-16 national-championship season as a transfer from Fordham, and continued with freshman Omari Spellman, juniors Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth, and sophomore Donte DiVincenzo.
“Oh and (sophomore Tim) Delaney,” Wright added. “I guess life is good on the Main Line. You’re not playing basketball. You’re hanging out in La La Land.”
They’re definitely playing winning basketball.
Against Gonzaga on Tuesday night in an 88-72 victory at Madison Square Garden, the Wildcats with an “R” before their class combined for 67 of those 88 points, 18 of the 31 rebounds, 6 of the 14 assists, 4 of the 6 steals, and all 3 blocked shots.
“It’s a nice place to be,” Wright said. “It really is.”
Strollin’ down the lane
It’s expected that point guard Jalen Brunson would figure out how to drive to the basket against Gonzaga. He can do that to anyone. Still, once the All-America candidate showed how the Bulldogs were leaving the gate to the lane unprotected, every ‘Cat with a handle started attacking the rim.
Once ‘Nova established it could dribble penetrate whenever it wanted, which took about five minutes, the game was effectively over.
Villanova got any shot it wanted — from layups to pull-up jumpers to open three-pointers on kickouts.
“What they were doing wasn’t all that complicated,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We just couldn’t stop them from doing it. They are playing all together with a purpose.”
What stopped this game from being a complete beat-down was that the Wildcats missed nine layups. That almost matched the number of three-pointers they missed — 11 of 21 attempts.
Of course, Villanova also converted 15 layups or dunks, and that contributed to its 51.7 percent overall shooting.
“We just kind of attacked the way the defense let us,” Booth said. “Maybe we should have kicked the ball back out on a few of those layups.”
Why Mikal Bridges is a lottery pick
During the defining sequence of the game, Bridges drove through two defenders at the rim to score a layup, then drained a three-pointer, and then grabbed a defensive rebound and immediately passed the ball to DiVincenzo for a breakout that ended in a layup by Brunson.
In less than a minute, Bridges had orchestrated a seven-point swing that took the final fight out of Gonzaga.
Later, in a 15-second burst, Bridges blew the roof off Madison Square Garden by driving down the lane for a thunderous one-handed dunk over 6-10 big man Killian Tillie and then, on the other end of the court, swatted a layup attempt by Josh Perkins like a volleyball.
With a 6-foot-7 frame, a wingspan bordering on that of a California condor, crazy athleticism, three-point range and a grind-you-down mentality on defense, Bridges is the prototypical small forward in today’s NBA.
That adds up to a lottery selection.
Maybe the Wildcats can play big
Wright didn’t invent “small ball,” but he’s always been a huge proponent of it. That can be a problem when facing a team with talented bigs. How to deal with that eventuality was an unknown for this team.
Foul trouble to Brunson and DiVincenzo forced Villanova to experiment with some lineups, and one that was effective had Bridges, Spellman, Paschall and freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree on the court at the same time.
It’s not going to become the Wildcats’ modus operandi, but look for Wright to continue to test it out to see if it becomes a reliable option for some stretches during games.