Villanova's Donte DiVincenzo isn't bothered by Final Four stage

Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo looks to shoot during Final Four practice at the Alamodome in San Antonio Texas on Friday.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas  — You watched Villanova games on the Big East’s national cable outlet the last couple of seasons, you could wonder if the guy coming off ‘Nova’s bench even had a proper name.

“Big Ragu from three!’’ Gus Johnson would let loose, not bothering with further identification.

When one of the most exuberant and popular TV announcers weaves you into his narrative, you do not complain.

“I don’t mind it since my man Gus gave it to me,’’ DiVincenzo said Friday in Villanova’s locker room inside the Alamodome. “He can’t not say it now. It’s always Ragu.”

His buddies give him an appropriately hard time about it — “they’ll send me pictures of Ragu cans after games, stuff like that.”

The origin story is simple. The season DiVincenzo sat out in 2015-16, he was shooting around before a game, Johnson, the FoxSports play-by-play man, more low key off the air, came over and began chatting.

“He just said it,’’ DiVincenzo said. “I was kind of caught off guard. It stuck. He kept saying it once I started playing.”

At Villanova, the role DiVincenzo has this season isn’t a new thing. You’ll see it Saturday night against Kansas in the national semifinals. More sixth starter than sixth man. During this NCAA tournament, the redshirt sophomore has come off the bench after 196 seconds, 226 seconds, 208 seconds and 6 ½ minutes. He’s replaced forward Eric Paschall, post player Omari Spellman, guard Phil Booth twice.

He basically has the role once Mikal Bridges had before him, Josh Hart before that.

“I know we want him in there and quickly,’’ Jay Wright said Friday. “It just depends on what’s going on. Sometimes we want to play small. Sometimes Omari as a freshman might be confused on pick and roll coverage. Sometimes Phil Booth be at the top of our press and get tired. It’s always something different but we’re almost looking for that need, to get our rotation going. Not only does he bring energy but he starts to get our rotation going.”

“Honestly, whoever I go in for is usually the guy who is playing the hardest initially in the game — because when we’re playing that hard, that first guy is getting tired right away,’’ DiVincenzo said. “I go in and try to get him a quick break and then it keeps going.”

His own box of skills is a rarity. A high-flying dunker, a smooth shooter, a player capable of pressing a defense at top speed and still finding the open man. DiVincenzo’s assist rate is second to Brunson among Villanova regulars, and is higher, by the way, than the second-best assist rate on the Kansas or Michigan rosters.

Against Alabama in the second round, DiVincenzo got in there before the four-minute mark and never left until halftime, scoring 18 points in 16 minutes, making 5 of 9 three-pointers before the break.

To watch him, however, is to sometimes see a player willing to go on a high wire.

“That’s a nice way to put it,’’ Wright said, laughing.

What that means is DiVincenzo is willing to live with the consequences of a play that doesn’t quite work out. Fearlessness seems built in here.

Camera icon Charles Fox
Donte DiVincenzo, left, of Villanova dunks over Harry Froling of Marquette during the 2nd half at the Wells Fargo Center on Jan 6, 2018. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

“We live with it,’’ Wright said back on campus earlier this week. “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.”

There’s more freedom for DiVincenzo as he moves up in the pecking order.

“He’s grown a lot and he’s gotten a lot better, so the rewards are far greater than the risks,’’ Wright said.

Last season, DiVincenzo was the backup point guard after Phil Booth got hurt, which to him meant initiating the offense but not keeping the ball in his own hands, getting to Hart and Kris Jenkins especially, “let them make plays. This year, having another year under my belt, Coach has grown trust in me to make plays. Now I might not necessarily have the play called for me, but if it gets in my hands, I have the responsibility to make a play.”

It absolutely helps, DiVincenzo said, that players who have come before him had his role and then moved into starring spots and succeeded past Villanova.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Villanova players wave to their fans at the end of their practice sessions for the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament at San Antonio on March 30, 2018.

He’s got another famous nickname, the Michael Jordan of Delaware, which Wright threw his way after a Pavilion game last season, referencing the esteem DiVincenzo was held in as a high school star in his native state.

“There’s worse nicknames you can get,’’ DiVincenzo said. “When you have that kind of nickname, there’s a lot of different thoughts that come with it, in terms of basketball.”

Many great players came before him in Delaware, DiVincenzo said, “even before I was born.” (Just call them the Wilt of Delaware, the Earl the Pearl of Delaware, the Magic of Delaware, etc.).

“With Ragu, there’s nothing basketball-related and people can have more fun with it,’’ DiVincenzo said.

If the Big Ragu of Delaware happens to pick up another nickname this weekend, assume he can handle it.