25 College Basketball Teams in 25 Days: No. 6 Villanova Wildcats

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 11: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats is introduced before the Big East Basketball Tournament - Championship game against the Creighton Bluejays at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2017 in New York City. The Wildcats won 74-60. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 11: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats is introduced before the Big East Basketball Tournament - Championship game against the Creighton Bluejays at Madison Square Garden on March 11, 2017 in New York City. The Wildcats won 74-60. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Villanova no longer has Josh Hart, so how do the Wildcats replace him?

Nowadays, the general presumption seems to be the names on head coach Jay Wright’s roster don’t really matter. He’s always got guys developing in the wings and ready to step into the spotlight. The Villanova Wildcats have entered a rare stratosphere in the college basketball world, one occupied by the country’s most historic programs and the bluest of blue bloods.

Most of the other programs is this rarefied realm sustain their dominance through high-level recruiting, churning out one-and-dones and replacing them with new 5-stars each season. Villanova, on the other hand, doesn’t really do that. Instead, the Wildcats teeter on the edge, recruiting plenty of 4-stars plus the occasional 5-star before developing them into long-term talents. It’s not that Wright wouldn’t take a one-and-done or two. He just hasn’t landed any of them yet.

The lack of a one-and-done freshman won’t constrain the Wildcats in 2017-18 either, but it is a bit odd to think that this Villanova roster should enter the season without some question marks. Are we supposed to assume that the Wildcats won’t have to do some soul searching after losing seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds?

That seems unwise.

Jenkins and Reynolds are less concerning losses as junior Eric Paschall and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman should be able to fill in the frontcourt roles in sort of one-for-one trades — notably, this probably understates the impact that Spellman could have for the team on the defensive end. Depth could potentially be a problem as well, but Villanova’s bench played less than 25.0 percent of available minutes last season and things turned out fine. The key will be keeping Spellman out of foul trouble and surviving defensive stretches where Paschall is the lone big on the floor.

Replacing Hart, though, is a more difficult matter. In many ways, the former 4-star recruit out of Washington, DC is the quintessential example of what Villanova is all about. Hart played a bit role his freshman season before turning into one of the country’s top bench options as a sophomore. Over his final two years he helped win a national title, vied for National Player of the Year honors and was a consensus All-American.

As a senior, Hart led the team in rebounding, scoring and 3-point percentage. He developed into a versatile scoring threat, capable of creating as much offensive on the ball as away from it. The 6-foot-5 guard was a deadly catch-and-shoot threat and one of the country’s top secondary play-makers. And that’s before mentioning his defensive versatility.

Plenty of the field goal attempts Hart is vacating will fall to junior point guard Jalen Brunson, the former Ryan Arcidiacono understudy who came into his own as a sophomore. Last season, the 6-foot-3 point guard averaged 18.9 points and 5.3 assists per 40 minutes while posting a 65.5 true shooting percentage. Brunson became one of only two underclassmen (min. 500 minutes played) to post a true shooting percentage better than 65.0 and an assist rate better than 26.0 since at least 2009-10. The other, Lonzo Ball, is already playing in the NBA.

Like Ball, Brunson isn’t an elite athlete when it comes to his quickness, but he’s an incredibly intelligent player who he can use his craftiness and change of pace to get to the rim at a relatively high rate in the halfcourt. He also finished in the 89th percentile nationally last season, per Synergy, as an off the dribble jump shooter, a scheme-changing skill that morphs how defenses have to guard ball screens and opens up the mid-range game. Because of that, much of Villanova’s offense this season figures to run through pick-and-rolls with Brunson with either Spellman diving to the rim or Paschall popping to the 3-point line while shooters spread the floor.

The question is who’s going to be the Wildcats’ second perimeter play-maker? In 2016-17, it was Hart. To wit, the senior guard accounted for 30.1 percent of Villanova’s possessions used by a pick-and-roll ball-handler and given how much of the team’s offense is based on those actions, Wright is going to need someone else to step into the role.

The three most likely options are Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth and Donte DiVincenzo.

Bridges, a 6-foot-7 wing, is the Wildcats’ best pro prospect given that he has better 3-and-D credentials than anyone in recent memory. The 21-year old is the only college player (min. 200 field goal attempts) since at least 2009-10 to log a true shooting percentage higher than 67.0 alongside block and steal rates above 3.0 percent over the course of a season. In fact, he’s so efficient offensively in a complimentary role that he is one of only two players in the last 25 years (min. 200 field goal attempts) to make at least 69.0 percent of his 2s, 39.0 percent of his 3s and 90.0 percent of his free throws in a single season. Bridges would simply be an excellent fit on just about any roster in America.

The problem is that it’s not clear there’s much room for Bridges to grow into the type of creator that Hart ultimately became. Last season, just 30 of the 244 (12.3 percent) halfcourt possessions he used qualified as created by him either via pick-and-roll, isolation or post up, per Synergy. Outside of the occasional Eurostep to create space in the lane, Bridges has shown virtually no acumen for generating his own buckets. In all likelihood, Bridges will continue to be a 3-and-D option this season.

Booth, a junior who redshirted last season dealing with knee tendinitis, is sort of the direct opposite of Bridges offensively. While the 6-foot-3 guard is remembered for his hot run in March during the Wildcats’ championship run and hanging 20 points on North Carolina in the title game, he actually wasn’t all that efficient as a scorer that season. Booth posted a 50.8 true shooting percentage in 2015-16, the worst among Villanova’s regular rotation pieces.

In terms of creation stats, Booth ranked in the 35th percentile nationally scoring out of the pick-and-roll as a sophomore and finished in the 11th percentile creating out of isolation, per Synergy. Despite being just a 31.7 percent 3-point shooter that season, Booth was actually at his most efficient as a catch-and-shoot threat, averaged 1.215 points per possession (84th percentile), per Synergy. On face, Booth may appear to be a viable secondary creator, but his efficiency numbers suggest he’s better off in a different role.

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That leaves us with redshirt sophomore Donte DiVincenzo. At 6-foot-5, he was the third piece of the Wildcats’ guard rotation last season, averaging 13.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per 40 minutes. DiVincenzo provided a serviceable outside threat at 36.5 percent from behind the arc, but his intriguing creation numbers are most interesting for 2017-18.

The 20-year old ranked in the 90th percentile nationally as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll at 0.984 points per possession, per Synergy. Like Brunson, he possesses the ability to hit the scheme-changing jumper off the dribble. DiVincenzo averaged 1.050 points per possession (91st percentile) on those shots as a redshirt freshman, per Synergy. That number is critical because he’s not the quickest athlete nor the best ball-handler so his ability to get to the rim is somewhat limited. If DiVincenzo can sustain those shooting numbers this season, he’ll help replace the secondary creation Villanova lost with Hart’s graduation.

If the adage about Wright’s Wildcats is true and they really don’t drop off season over season, the head coach is going to need someone to fill-in that void left by Hart. Brunson is a likely All-American, but he can’t handle the full load — nobody can. So, if you want something to watch for with Villanova this year, track the minutes of Booth and DiVincenzo, assuming Bridges remains the 3-and-D specialist, and how efficient they are scoring in creation situations. It could be the difference between an early March exit or another deep run.