By Kyle Caron
#7 Villanova Wildcats
Last Year: 32-4 (15-3 Big East) NCAA Tournament Second Round
Jay Wright has completely transformed the Villanova basketball program since his arrival in 2001. During the period of mediocrity that was the Steve Lappas era, the Wildcats were a team that consistently saw their season end in the early rounds of the NIT. However with Wright in control, the team has only missed the NCAA tournament once since the 2004 season. More importantly, they saw their first National Title since 1985 after what is considered the best end to a championship game ever in 2016.
For a good portion of last season, the Wildcats ranked number one in the country by the AP Poll. They also earned the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with realistic expectations that they could repeat as national champions. But after a stunning upset by Wisconsin in the second round, the team was left wondering what could have been.
Seven months have passed and a new season is upon us. With Jay Wright leading the program in his seventeenth season, there is little doubt that Villanova will outperform the rest of the Big East by a large margin. They have won the conference outright for the last four years after all. But with the departure of the team’s two biggest assets, it is understandable that there are some questions surrounding just how far this Wildcats team can go.
When you think of the name Kris Jenkins the iconic buzzer beater to win the title two years ago is probably the first thing that comes to mind. However to only associate the graduated Senior with that one moment would be an insult to his career as a whole. Jenkins became the thirty-fourth all time scorer for the program and received honorable mention recognition in the All-Big East selection his senior year. Last year he had the third most assists and points per game on the roster as well. While he may not have been the superstar All-American type, Jenkins was a crucial role-player who’s senior leadership will be missed.
The other graduated senior who’s impact will be felt even more is Josh Hart. To emphasize the importance Hart played in this team, let’s run through some of his accolades from his college career: First-team All-American, Big East Player of the Year, 2x First-team All-Big East, 2x Big East Tournament MOP, Big East Sixth Man of the Year (2015), and of course NCAA Champion. Throughout the season Hart scored twenty-five or more points eight times. He led the team with 18.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and in 3-pt percentage at 40.4%. He also had the second most assists per game and steals per game. Hart was by all means the heart and soul of this team and without him Jalen Brunson will have to step up big time.
Jermaine Samuels is likely the best recruit in their 2017 class. This SF out of Massachusetts prides himself on his scoring ability. His natural athleticism gives him an advantage when driving to the basket but he is also able to make some tough outside shots if needed. Although he needs to work on his perimeter game, his agility allows him to change directions quickly and make shots in transition. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree could get some minutes providing support in the frontcourt while Collin Gillespie will get some minutes off the bench as well, but neither seem as if they will make a big splash in their freshman seasons. Luckily for Villanova, Hart and Jenkins are the only two departures from last year so there is very little to replace.
The reason I am so high on Villanova is because their roster has hardly changed. Yes the loss of Hart is a tough blow and Jenkins was the rock of their frontcourt, but all in all almost everyone else is returning. Consistency is one of the key factors in team chemistry. Only a handful of schools such as Kentucky are able to have drastically different lineups each year and get the team to gel quickly which is why I think this season’s Wildcats have a slight advantage. Jalen Brunson will take on the leadership role left by Hart and Donte DiVincenzo will continue to grow after his breakout season last year. The biggest X factor for this team is the addition of big man Omari Spellman who will play for the first time after being a redshirt last year. I feel like if Brunson can live up to expectations and fill the gap that Hart left behind, this Villanova team will see themselves in the top ten throughout the season.