WELCOME! The wine and cheese is in the corner, the Ralph Lauren half-zip sweaters are everywhere, the douchebag snapping his side piece while his Special Olympics organizer girlfriend looks on is emotionally absent, and the air of entitlement fills the room. You’re welcome to join in on the festivities– just remember, don’t speak unless spoken to and, please, try to get some jeans that fit.
Almost three years ago to the day, I wrote a post titled For Some Reason, People Still Hate Villanova. The Cats were the third-ranked team in the country and on the verge of becoming a two seed – coincidentally in Buffalo – in the NCAA Tournament, and I couldn’t understand why many Philly fans who didn’t go to Villanova, and certainly those who went to St. Joe’s or Temple, hated them so much. As a Nova grad, a badge I wear proudly on my ascot, I find that Philly folks tend to bristle at my school’s success, even if the basketball team embodies everything local fans love in their sports teams.
So, as the foremost blogging fan of the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, allow me to extend a warm, elegantly-fonted invitation aboard the bandwagon, which is actually a five-star hotel meeting room that requires a hefty V Club donation to enter. Do try the brie. As for everything else, here’s a primer:
Josh Hart is the obvious choice. Two-time First Team All-Big East, two-time Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, Big East Player of the Year, All-American and National Player of the Year Candidate, Hart needs no introduction. He’s a potential first-round draft pick. He may not have a position in the NBA, but he’s strong, quick, can shoot, rebound and defend, and he’s the unquestioned hart and soul of the team. He also went viral for being a good sport:
— FS1 (@FS1) March 11, 2017
But lately, it’s been sophomore Jalen Brunson, whose dad played Temple and then wanted a better life for his son, who has become the offensive star. With his generic NBA 2K fro, Brunson is the prototypical Nova guard– small, somewhat stocky, shifty, can score in a multitude of ways, and shoot the three. What he lacks in size and athleticism – I saw someone refer to this as “thick-ankled Nova guard” and I laughed – he makes up for with impressive awareness and knowledge of the game, which announcers love to say he gets from his dad. A #studentofthegame, he replaces fellow SOTG Ryan Arcidiacono… only Brunson is better, and a sophomore. He has a knack for knowing when his team needs him to get a quick basket.
What about Kris Jenkins?
For the championship… bang! Big Smoove, a nickname which I always just assumed he hates (Jenkins lost weight last summer in an effort to turn himself into a legit NBA prospect and presumably shed the big portion of the moniker), gets all the pub for hitting, oh, just the greatest shot in basketball history. He’s the shooter and, along with Hart and forward Darryl Reynolds, one of the three senior leaders on the team. But offensively, he’s not as well-rounded as Hart or Brunson. When Nova comes up in casual conversation, don’t be the uninformed national TV guy and drop some inanity like “Yeah, Kris Jenkins is legit” on your salmon-Polo-ed coworker, because he probably went to Villanova and now knows you haven’t watched a game since last April… and he’s probably your boss (sorry). Jenkins is good, a streaky shooter, and the guy who does all the things Jay Wright loves, but he’s not the best player. Personally, I don’t think he has enough speed and strength, or a deep enough skill set, to play in the NBA, but he’ll make a ton of money in Europe, home to the surname of…
Deep cuts, token Italian point guard
Photo credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
A TWOFER! Congratulations to Donte DiVincenzo, THE BIG RAGU*, for not only being the sleeper star, but also Jay’s trademarked Italian point guard.
DiVincenzo picks up right where Mike Nardi (a current assistant who picked up wads of cash and Euro style** while playing in Italia) and Arcidiacono left off. Rumor has it Jay is recruiting an actual meatball, currently a high school freshman, to replace DiVincenzo, a medical redshirt freshman, when he graduates in three years. His game is said to be delicious.
Donte played in a handful of games last season and then broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his foot and had to watch the National Championship run from the bench. He swaps places with Phil Booth this year. Booth, who scored 20 points against North Carolina in the title game, has missed the entire season with pain in his surgically repaired knee and will take a redshirt. But DiVincenzo has done a lot over the last few months to alleviate concerns about Booth’s absence. The Michael Jordan of Delaware***, Donte is an insanely athletic white guard**** with impressive hops. He’s someone who will attempt three rim-rattling dunks this month… and convert one of them. He won the Virginia game in January with a last-second tip-in of Hart’s missed layup attempt. To me, he may be the best NBA prospect on the Wildcats. He’s young, and a bit raw, but he’s improved markedly over the course of the season and has next level athleticism. Just like…
*This is a nickname I assumed he would hate, but the way Villanova players chortled about it in an interview with FOX commentators during the Big East Tournament makes me think it has something to do with Donte’s, um, locker room stature. In which case, I LOVE IT. I guess all stereotypes aren’t true.
**Nardi’s time at Nova overlapped with mine, and I can tell you that he dressed like a cross between Eminem and a North Jersey meth addict. To see him in tight-fitting suits is both jarring and pleasing, mostly because everyone thought I looked like him:
Only one of us has a our name tattooed inside a basketball on our right deltoid.
***A better nickname.
****It’s required by pontificating law to point out when a white player exceeds replacement level athleticism.
Photo credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
SUSPENSION BRIDGES! Noted for his long arms, which find their way into every passing lane within a 12-foot radius, Bridges, as a freshman, was the breakout star of the tournament last year and secured the Final Four-clinching ball in a fashion eerily reminiscent of Dwayne McClain’s National Championship dive in 1985– YOU CAN’T TELL WHERE MCCLAIN AND BRIDGES MERGE:
Can’t see the line, can you, Russ?
Bridges has improved almost daily since then and is now the team’s fourth leading scorer. He’s long, athletic, and can shoot the three. He’s beginning to develop an ability to create off the bounce, too. He’s obviously very good defensively and on the boards. If Bridges adds some muscle, he’ll be a legit NBA prospect by this time next year. Until then, look for his long, gangly arms and corner three shooting ability to stand out. Opponents will need to pay a… wait for it… toll to get by him.
Moments to watch for
Jay Wright crying: Wright, who celebrates nothing, has a habit of getting Misty May during otherwise mundane moments. Like three years ago, when asked about his seniors…
… and last year, when asked about his seniors:
— CSN Philly (@CSNPhilly) March 30, 2016
He fucking loves his seniors. Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds obviously hold special significance to him, so look for another teary outburst, perhaps following a hard-fought second round win over Wisconsin.
Jay Wright fist pump: It’s well-documented that Wright is a don when it comes to on-court celebrations, but, like most coaches, he’s different behind closed doors. His affable, friendly demeanor gives way to a crazy strict (but well-liked!) coach who lets his true emotions fly when the team overcomes a hurdle, like last year after Villanova advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009:
— John Clark CSN (@JClarkCSN) March 20, 2016
If you look closely, you can see Villanova President Fr. Donohue in the background counting the donations.
Tomes have been written about that fist pump. Well, one. In fact, I wrote it.
Attitude. Gonna be hearing a lot of it. For one, it’s the name of Jay’s new book (available now on Amazon!). But it’s also the trigger word for his players to snap into their Navy and White trance and play the game the Wright way (I have so many puns). Attitude is diving for loose balls, helping teammates up, moving on to the next play, TAKING CHARGES– it’s not all lip service with Nova. Jay believes it and his players buy in. This group, in particular, is mentally rock solid and virtually unflappable. Villanova may go down, but it won’t be for a lack of effort or because they came unglued. But it might be because…
There are two:
- Size. As is usually the case for Villanova teams that rely heavily on the three-pointer, they are lacking depth in the middle. Jay’s best teams typically have big men and swing players who can shoulder the burden, at least for a little while, when the shots aren’t falling. Guys like Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark in 2009, and Daniel Ochefu last year. Ochefu proved to be an NBA talent– he could get easy baskets and gobble up rebounds. This year, it’s Darryl Reynolds, an athletic big man who is plenty serviceable, in the middle. It gets awfully thin behind him. When he missed a few games due to injury at the end of the season, the energetic and effective Eric Paschall, and Dylan Painter, large freshman, had to shoulder some of the load. They did fine, but that won’t cut it should Reynolds miss any significant time due to injury or foul trouble.
- Guard depth. This sounds odd, but bear with me. Villanova has replaced Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth with Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and ???. Brunson is, talent wise, an upgrade over Arcidiacono. DiVincenzo fills the Booth role well. But what they’re missing is the third option. Brunson and Booth played a combined 47 minutes in the National Championship game. Booth had 20 points. They needed them. The “lack” of depth isn’t a huge concern, obviously, because guard play is a strength for Nova, but Arcidiacono graduating and Booth going down this season left them one able-bodied guard short of what they had last year. Still, it might not matter because…
They’ve improved so much everywhere else. Brunson may not have NBA athleticism, but he’s beginning to look like a guy who could flirt with the Association. He’s really good. He’s Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds and Arcidiacono wrapped into one. Hell, he even sort of looks like an amalgamation of all ball-handling Nova guards before him. If his father didn’t go to Temple, I’d swear he was gestated in the tunnel that connects the Pavilion and whatever they’re calling the field house these days. If Jay Wright said “Build me a guard,” some omniscient AI would spit out Brunson, who has the ball-handling skills of Fisher, the scoring touch of Reynolds, and the intangibles of Arcidiacono.
Meanwhile, Hart has gone from good to great.
Bridges has progressed from a large-winged bench player with an innocent face into a large-winged starter who can rebound, defend and score… with an innocent face. He possesses a unique skill set the team didn’t have last season. HE CONNECTS TWO LARGES BODIES OF LAND OVER A BODY OF WATER.
Kris Jenkins is… well, Kris Jenkins. I’m not trying to sound down on him in this post, but his stats remain largely the same as last year. He’s a very good college basketball player with incredible range. He’s now more experienced and has handled his newfound fame well. If anything, I take for granted how good he is and #allthesmallthings he does.
DiVincenzo, filling the Booth role from last year, is more athletic. He’s a freak. He’s the Michael Jordan of Delaware. He’s good for a few head-scratching plays, but they’ve decreased in frequency over the course of the season as he’s become acclimated to the pace of play.
For a team known for its shooting ability, Villanova can score in a variety of ways and is extremely balanced in its 7-8-man rotation. Their ball movement makes it seem as though they’re putting on a clinic, and whoever winds up with the rock is typically someone who can shoot it or drive with it. They do an incredible job of freeing up an open man along the baseline, and yet they can make it rain from beyond NBA range. Bang.
Defensively, they’re the basketball equivalent of a taking sandpaper to your testicles. They will irritate the shit out of you and then take your ball. They possess the rare ability take away your soul with defensive steals and fast break points. They’ll throw a little 1-2-2 press at you, literally as a mind-fuck.
They. Make. Their. Free Throws. Even on off nights, Villanova has perfected the grind it out, wear ’em down tactic. Mark my words, if they go far in the tournament, they’ll win at least one game by grinding someone’s vas deferens down to a nub through a combination of sandpaper D and free-throw shooting. The other team will forfeit out of chafeage or just sheer boredom. Attitude.
And despite losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu, Villanova somehow seems better than they were last season. In Hart and Brunson, they have two premium talents. I’m not sure they had one player last year who was as good as both of them are now. The whole team is so remarkably mentally tough. They’re experienced. What’s more, they have taken every opponent’s best shot for the entire season, often in hostile environments, and they came out of it 31-3, losing only Butler, who had their number, and on the road against Marquette… this in a conference that got seven – SEVEN – teams into the tournament. Like I said earlier, they inspire confidence.
Nova is certainly good enough to win it all– in fact they might be favored to do so. But the NCAA Tournament has so many random elements to it that even the heaviest favorite still has a relatively low chance of winning. Therefore, my best guess is that they ultimately fall short, not because their shots don’t fall, but when one of their forwards gets into foul trouble and the band-aid of double teams and Dylan Painter isn’t enough to get them through it. Simply put, Villanova might not have quite enough front court depth to overcome one weird night. I would, of course, love to be wrong. Enjoy the cheese. Buy a shirt: