During the week leading up to its 2016 national semifinal game against Oklahoma at the Final Four, Villanova appeared to have a problem. The Wildcats weren’t having much success at practice guarding the guy who was playing the role of Sooners all-America guard Buddy Hield on their scout team.
“If we can’t guard Donte,” coach Jay Wright lamented, “how in the world can we expect to guard Buddy Hield?”
Although Donte DiVincenzo, who redshirted in his first year on campus after being injured, was not participating in the Final Four, his practice performance as Hield would be a turning point in his career.
“We as a staff were thinking, ‘I hope Buddy Hield is not that much better than him because we’re not having success stopping him,’” Wright recalled Monday. “Then after we played Buddy Hield in that game – and we knew Buddy was better – we said, ‘Donte was harder to guard in practice.’
“We talked to him about that. We said, ‘You’ve just got to figure out how to use that within game situations. But you’ve got it, you’ve really got it.’ And he does.”
Hield, averaging 25 points entering the game, managed just nine points and shot 1-of-8 on threes in ‘Nova’s 95-51 win. As for DiVincenzo, he used his practice performance and Wright’s words as a springboard to improving his game and becoming a major contributor.
The 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore from Wilmington has played a major role on the Wildcats (32-4), who resume their NCAA tournament Friday night against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. The Big East sixth man of the year, DiVincenzo is third on the team in scoring (13.1 points per game), and second in assists (3.6) and steals (1.17).
He showed two facets of his game in the Cats’ two wins last weekend – eight assists against Radford in the first round, 18 first-half points with five three-point baskets against Alabama in the second.
And it all started with him in the role of Hield.
“Honestly, when that whole Buddy Hield thing happened and we got past them and we ended up winning the national championship, I realized what I actually bring to the table,” DiVincenzo said. “It took off from there because that summer I just lived in the gym. I had a good year last year and that just boosted my confidence.”
DiVincenzo played in eight games as a true freshman before he was diagnosed with a fractured metatarsal in his right foot. He admitted he was upset when it happened but that he “learned the most I ever had about basketball that year,” staying involved and engaged despite being sidelined.
“Coach recruits those kinds of guys,” he said. “I didn’t know I was that kind of guy but Coach knew before I knew, and that’s just a credit to him.”
DiVincenzo resumed practice late that season. As a redshirt freshman, he earned Big East All-Rookie honors and was named Big 5 rookie of the year. He felt he might have a chance to be a starter this season before Wright discussed with him his role as sixth man.
“He told me that he could substitute me for any of the five” starters,” DiVincenzo said. “He said, ‘I think your ability to be able to play multiple positions is very valuable, just being able to come off the bench and bring energy.’ It wasn’t a difficult adjustment because I’m coming off the bench early.
“I kind of look at it as, I get to see how the game is going and what the flow of the game is like, and I get to go in there and play my game.”
Wright was impressed with DiVincenzo’s two games last weekend, showing that he knew exactly what the Wildcats needed in each.
“He sits there like you would want the best sixth man in the country to do,” Wright said. “He analyzes what’s going on in the game. Usually I’ll say just one thing to him but if I just say, ‘Donte, get us going,’ he knows what we need. It’s incredible to have the basketball IQ to figure that out, and the talent to get it done.”
DiVincenzo will be reading the situation again before he comes off the bench against West Virginia, a team that’s known for its pressing defense and physical play. He has performed well in the NCAA tournament, averaging 15.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in four games, including two last season.
“I think it’s because I don’t think about it,” he said of his success. “I just go out there and play my game and let the chips fall where they may. When they take away some of our main guys, I just find myself open sometimes and knock down shots.”
He doesn’t have to be Buddy Hield. He’s doing fine as Donte DiVincenzo.
Remember this dunk?
Donte DiVincenzo and 1. �� pic.twitter.com/P9n2DtxNnn
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) November 15, 2017