They haven’t felt the weight of the bull’s-eye yet. They surely will.
The Villanova Wildcats have spent most of the past seven months on a sort of victory lap after capturing their first national championship since 1986, a riveting ensemble run through the NCAA Tournament capped by Kris Jenkins’ immortal three-pointer at the buzzer for the win over North Carolina in Houston.
The White House. The Espy Awards. The constant interruptions in every place and at every moment for a selfie with a fan or a quick exchange about an authentically memorable game. College basketball fans have been living with the charge from that championship and not letting the ’Cats move to the next challenge, defending the national title.
“Nobody said, ‘good luck this season,’ ” was how a recent public appearance was recalled by Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose years at Hofstra were the steppingstone to becoming a household name. Everybody was talking to us about the [national championship] game. They wanted to take pictures with Kris. That’s just part of your challenge for next year. I don’t think it’s going to end until we play games.”
That starts with a Nov. 11 home game against Lafayette. Villanova, which went 35-5 last season, has been pegged No. 4 nationally in the preseason Associated Press poll; it received four No. 1 votes, second only to top-ranked Duke (58) and more than either No. 2 Kentucky or No. 3 Kansas. It also was the unanimous preseason pick to win the Big East.
And this comes after losing two key senior starters, point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu, who set the tone for the Wildcats’ team-first style of play last season. That style proved a statement of sorts after several years of seeing teams stacked with young NBA lottery-pick talent win the big prize.
’Nova refreshingly showed last season that, sometimes, the team that plays best together can prevail over individual talents.
Without Arcidiacono and Ochefu, this team will have a very different personality but it also has a lot of returnees who know how to play The Villanova Way. As Wright said, “There’s a lot of different ways to be successful. If we’re successful this year, it’s going to be very different than last year’s team.”
The 6-5 Josh Hart is the Big East preseason Player of the Year and an AP preseason first-team All-American pick after averaging a team-high 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. The 6-6 Jenkins (13.6 points) and 6-3 guard Jaylen Brunson (9.6 points) are the other returning starters.
Three more from the eight-man rotation — 6-3 Phil Booth, 6-7 Mikal Bridges and 6-9 Darryl Reynolds — also return. Plus the ’Cats also are adding 6-7 Fordham transfer Eric Paschall, who averaged 15.9 points and 5.5 and was 2015 Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year before switching schools. The blue-chip 6-9 Omari Spellman will miss the season after being ruled a partial qualifier.
Brunson takes over the point guard spot and center is still a question mark.
But Wright has built a sustainable winner — 97 victories in the past three years — by instilling that ensemble-cast philosophy. And there’s no reason to think Villanova doesn’t remain a viable national championship contender.
“The thing that I marvel about with Villanova is their chemistry, their unselfishness, their ability to play together and play through adversity,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “That to me really tells you who they are and that’s hard to instill in a culture and a program. Make no mistake they have very talented players but Jay gets them to buy into their role and to play for Villanova and, until somebody can knock them off, they are going to be who they are.”
Jenkins said he doesn’t expect it will take long for this group of Wildcats to start clicking because most of them are already comfortable playing together. “Some of the roles have changed, but it’s still Villanova basketball,” he said.
Asked if he and Jenkins can pilot Villanova back to the Final Four, Hart said there is no reason why they can’t.
“The guys that we have want to be led and that’s the biggest thing — there’s no egos, there’s no big heads,” Hart said. “Everyone’s just bought in — competitive, fiery — and that’s really helping us focus on this year.”