NEW YORK– Villanova has arguably been the hottest team in the country since the Cats have come home from the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
They blew away Penn, 90-62, in a City Series game Jake Nevin Arena in the Main line last Wednesday, beat Big 5 arch rival St. Joseph’s by 41 on Hawk Hill last Saturday and blew by 12th ranked Gonzaga, 88-72, last night in the Jimmy V. Classic at the Garden.
Those last three games have not even been close.
The fourth-ranked Cats are now 9-0 and, if they continue to play like this, it could be a long time before they suffer their first loss.
“If we keep working hard, you’re going to be a tough team to beat,” Villanova’s 6-7 red shirt junior wing Mikal Bridges said. “If we relax, that’s when we can get beat.”
The wiry Bridges, a live body who ripped into a well coached Zags’ team– which played for the national championship last year,for a career-high 28 points and six rebounds, epitomizes the versatility and resilience of this team, which has achieved a lofty early season ranking even though it had to replace three starters– Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds– from last year’s 31-win team that was ranked No. 1 in the country in the final regular season AP Top 25.
When Bridges arrived on the Main Line from Great Valley, a Chester County High School with no history of basketball, four years ago, the coaching staff could see he had a huge upside, but they sat him out his freshman year because they felt he was not strong enough to play in the Big East. “We thought he could be a pro,” Wright said. “But he wasn’t ready. He used to get beat up every day in practice,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Bridges may have come farther than any player Wright has coached, including Hart and Dante Cunningham. Overnight, he has emerged as the best NBA prospect in the Big East. We got a glimpse of what he is capable of in the second half when he drove the lane and hammered home a dunk in traffic, then blocked a shot at the other end on the next possession. “I just saw the lane and tried to go up strong. Ever since my freshman year, I’ve laid the ball up a lot and the coaches and the seniors, they used to get on me for that.”
Bridges’ virtuoso performance in front of a huge sellout crowd and a national television audience brought back memories of Hart’s career high 37 points in a 74-66 come-from-behind victory against Notre Dame last year in Newark could be the springboard that lifts him into the same ozone as Hart, who became a national Player of the Year candidate that day.
“He is a big time player and I hope he stayed in college, but he is someone that can do whatever he wants,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “He’s a big shot maker. He is capable of taking tough shots and making them.”
Bridges shot 8 for 14 and made 5 of 9 threes in 36 minutes, carrying this team in the second half after valuable point guard Jalen Brunson got into foul trouble.
“He’s a real high-character guy,” Wright said. “He probably could have done more of this last year and the year before but he just gradually got better. He’s the captain, so he’s playing with a lot more freedom. ”aggressiveness” as he says. Last year he would pass up a lot of those shots just to get the ball to Kris or Josh, not because he wasn’t confident, he just knows it”s his turn and he’s ready for it. He’s worked hard to improve his game and he’s ready mentally and he’s ready skill-wise.”
Bridges wasn’t the only player on the Cats who made an impact against the Zags (7-2), who fell behind 43-30 at half and could never catch up despite 22 points from Zach Norvell Jr.
Phil Booth, a 6-5 red shirt junior guard who missed last season with a knee injury, rediscovered his groove, shooting 9 for 14 and scoring a career high tying 20 points.
“He brings a lot,” Wright said of Booth. “He played hurt for us his sophomore year, everybody knows that and they respect it. Got 20 points in the 2016 NCAA championship game against North Carolina with all that pressure on him.”
Sitting out wasn’t always easy for Booth. “It was hard, putting on a suit instead of a uniform,” he said. “But I learned a lot from that year. I missed the game a lot. I learned to appreciate my teammates more and all the things they do. I saw the game from a totally different perspective. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my game. It’s great to be out there playing.”
Villanova actually has six players on the roster– Bridges, Booth, 6-8 Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, 6-9 academic red shirt freshman center Omari Spellman, guard Donte Divincenzo and forward Tim Delaney– who have red shirted for one reason or another. “I guess they just like hanging out on the Main Line,” Wright said.
The extra year has helped the Cats maintain an experienced, unselfish look. Wright has been looking to Going into this game, Wright was still experimenting with expanding his rotation. He has six players who could all be starters. Now, it looks like he has found a seventh man in his rotation, 6-9 freshman Da Da Cosby-Roundtree, who scored 5 points in 15 minutes but allowed Wright to experiment with Bridges at the off guard against the Zags’ tall front line when he was in the game.
The Cats are on a roll.
“I think they put it on us,” Few said. “They did a wonderful job beating us with the little things. They took care of the ball and got great team shots.”