by John Fanta @John_Fanta
Based on the assembly line of success that Villanova has had the last four seasons, the assumption was that the Wildcats would once again be one of America’s best.
On Tuesday night inside the fourth-ranked Wildcats’ home away from home, that assumption was reality in an 88-72 Villanova beatdown of No. 12 Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. Jay Wright’s team passed its biggest test to date with flying colors, and the Wildcats did it behind Mikal Bridges.
The redshirt junior, a first round NBA Draft prospect, put on a show better than Broadway quality. Putting up a career-high 28 points and six rebounds, including a thunderous one-hand dunk that sent The Garden into a frenzy, Bridges could not have been better. In fact, the 6-foot-7 star had Jay Bilas talking about his All-American potential on ESPN. While his point guard teammate Jalen Brunson was the BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year, there’s more than one Wildcat in contention for the conference’s highest honor now.
For Bridges, the door to be Villanova’s leader opened wide in the offseason, with current Laker Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins graduating.
“In past years that I’ve been here, I wasn’t as aggressive,” said Bridges. “I just went with the flow. I want to play smart, but also be aggressive.”
His teammates played with that same aggressiveness, especially on the defensive end. The Wildcats threw off Gonzaga completely, scoring 19 points off as many turnovers by the reigning national runner-up. To hold the lengthy Killian Tillie and Johnathan Williams to just a combined 11 points stood out as well.
While Bridges has come into his own as arguably the Wildcats’ best player, one other standout has reemerged from injury on this Villanova team. Just when Gonzaga was within 10 with less than three minutes left in the first half, Phil Booth drained a triple to balloon the advantage to 13. The redshirt junior, who has come back from a knee injury last season as a major contributor, tied his career-high with 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor. Oh, and let’s not forget about Brunson. While he stumbled into first half foul trouble, the junior still put up 12 points, five boards, and four assists.
So, no surprise here. Wright once again has a one-seed caliber team and the Wildcats own the BIG EAST until someone dethrones them. But what about a national title? How could Villanova win a second title in three years?
There’s a wrinkle to this Villanova team. They shot 10-of-21 from three-point land. That’s not surprising at all. What does stand out is the Wildcats’ length. Wright said preseason that his team was one of the most versatile he had and deeper than a year ago.
The man driving the Cats’ frontcourt is Omari Spellman. The freshman was better than any of Gonzaga’s big’s, putting up 10 and 10 and showing a number of skills. The big man even hammered a three.
At one point, Villanova went with 6-3 Phil Booth at point guard, 6-7 Mikal Bridges, 6-7 Eric Paschall, 6-9 Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and 6-10 Omari Spellman. The option is there for Wright to go big, and that’s something teams are unfamiliar with when facing Villanova.
What teams are most unfamiliar with, though, is this version of Bridges. He’s provided bursts before, but tonight, it was 36 minutes of an elite two-way play.
These new dimensions give the Wildcats a look that has deep March potential.