National champion Villanova reloads after 4 key losses
VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — The banner for Villanova's 2018 national championship was dropped from the rafters as "We Are The Champions" roared during the grand opening of the program's $65 million renovated arena.
It couldn't be missed.
As for the Wildcats who helped lead them to their second title in three seasons, well, they'll be a bit harder to find around campus.
AP Player of the Year Jalen Brunson plays for the Dallas Mavericks. Omari Spellman is with the Atlanta Hawks. Mikal Bridges landed in Phoenix after a draft-night trade with the 76ers. And Donte DiVincenzo — last seen scoring 31 points in the title game win over Michigan — is with the Milwaukee Bucks.
For those keeping score at home, that's three first-round draft picks and a national player of the year gone from a Villanova team that set a program-best in wins (36-4) and won an NCAA-record 136 games over a four-year span.
"This is a rare situation for us," coach Jay Wright said. "I'd rather have at least two of those guys back, and that would be more of a normal transition for us."
It's a 1-percenter problem for the Wildcats as they've soared into the short list of college basketball's elite programs over the last 10 years. The Wildcats made their first Final Four under Wright in 2009 and have had only one bad year over the last decade. The Wildcats have won 33, 35, 32 and 36 over the last four seasons and last season they hit No. 1 in the AP Top 25, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won another Big East Tournament title.
So who's up for a championship encore?
Even with the roster turnover, the Wildcats will still contend for a Big East title and be a threat to make some noise in March (they opened as a 10-1 shot to repeat).
But who will lead them?
Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, the lone holdovers from the '16 title team, and Collin Gillespie are the only three players guaranteed to start. Wright said the other two spots are up for grabs — though, if the preseason is a guide, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree started in a scrimmage against North Carolina. Gillespie, Samuels, Cosby-Roundtree and Dylan Painter are the sophomores expected to develop into the next wave of stars for the Wildcats. They'll have to do it in a hurry with the losses of so many key rotation players.
"It might be a year early for some of them, but if the four of them can step up then that could make us a pretty good team," Wright said.
Villanova is ranked ninth in the AP Top 25 poll and there's little reason to believe it won't spend most of the season in the top 10 as long as the sophomores develop into the type of Big East stars as their predecessors.
Here are other items of note for the Wildcats before they open their season Nov. 6 against Morgan State.
The Wildcats are back on campus after playing a season at the home of the Philadelphia 76ers. The Wildcats went 11-1 at the Wells Fargo Center, their one-year home while the on-campus Pavilion is renovated.
The project transformed the Pavilion from a multipurpose and painfully outdated gym into a state-of-the-art complex with all the high definition scoreboards, suites and modern amenities needed to stay relevant with the other elite programs.
The Wildcats are going to ring in the joint in a major way. After games against Morgan State and Quinnipiac, there's a national title game rematch set against No. 19 Michigan for Nov. 14 at the Pavilion. It's about as big a nonconference game gets on campus in era of neutral-site showdowns.
OR IS IT
Michigan might just be a warmup act for the Wildcats. They play No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 15 at Allen Fieldhouse in a Final Four rematch from last season. The Wildcats romped past Kansas and would win all six tournament games by double digits, joining Michigan State in 2000, Duke in 2001 and North Carolina in 2009. Villanova also joined the 1968 UCLA team as the only ones to win both their Final Four games by 16 or more points.
BOOTH IS BACK
Booth can tell his grandkids stories about the 2016 national title team — today.
OK, those are the kind of groaners that pop up when a Top 25 team has a veteran who has seemingly been around since basketball was invented. This year, it's the 22-year-old Booth, a key player on the '16 title team who was forced to redshirt a year later because of injuries. He averaged 10 points and started 31 games for the Wildcats.
"I like the young guys and how they listen, how much they're open to coaching, and how much they want to get better," Booth said. "When you get a group of guys like that, it makes it easy to work with."
Freshman Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star recruit, is expected to follow Brunson as Villanova's next great point guard and graduate transfer Joe Cremo is expected to provide needed depth after he scored 1,469 points in three years at Albany.
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