The Blue/White scrimmage provided the Villanova faithful the opportunity to see how this year’s team is beginning to round into shape. The ‘Nova coaching staff has a wealth of options to choose from when putting different line-ups out on the floor given the versatility inherent in many of the players that are likely to make up the eight or nine-man rotation that will log the majority of the minutes.
There are 40 minutes available at the 5 spot and the Cats will likely staff this position by committee. Senior Darryl Reynolds will start. He understands the defense and provides enough offensive versatility to keep opposing defenses honest. Though he isn’t a threat out to three-point range, like ineligible Frosh, Omari Spellman, Reynolds can shoot the mid-range jumper with some reliability. Expect Reynolds to play the majority of minutes at the 5 with Dylan Painter getting something on the order of 5-10 minutes off the bench depending upon how quickly he learns the defense and progresses early in his career. There will certainly be times where Coach Wright will play Eric Paschall or Kris Jenkins at the 5 spot - using their deep-shooting and dribble-drive abilities to stretch defenses.
Sophomore point guard, Jalen Brunson and Junior combo-guard, Phil Booth are both playing at a high level and poised to serve as a dynamic, starting back-court duo. Brunson is shooting it well, and has improved his strength and quickness over the last year to where he can finish more consistently in traffic. Brunson is cerebral and has a great sense for when to go get his own shot. Booth, having bounced back from his injuries of last season, is playing with confidence. He is taking guys off the dribble with more regularity while still showing a dead-eye shooting touch from mid-range and deep. His handle isn’t at an elite level but he certainly can handle the back-up PG duties and serve as a great complement to Brunson when they share the back-court. Donte Divincenzo is the third PG option but is unlikely to play many minutes in that role. He has an adequate handle and is a good passer. DiVincenzo shot the ball beautifully yesterday. The coaching staff has done a great job working with him to improve his form and consistency - he is getting more square to the basket and has a more fluid release than he did a year ago.
Now we get to the point of the discussion where versatility is king. While Brunson, Booth and DiVincenzo will play all the minutes at the 1 and the bulk of the minutes at the 2, Hart and Bridges are able to contribute spot minutes at the 2 as well. These spot minutes, in combination with the spot minutes where Paschall and Jenkins can play the 5 are where the 2016-17 Wildcats will create match-up nightmares for other teams on offense while exhibiting the defensive versatility to switch at will, smother ball-handlers on the perimeter, and use length and strength to turn games into physical battles of will.
The Cats are loaded at the forward/wing positions with four options as good as any team in the country. First you have pre-season All-American and Big East POY candidate, Josh Hart. It is a great tribute to the Wildcat Coaching staff and Hart’s work ethic to see how far his jump-shooting ability has improved over his career. Hart is a relentless rebounder, a destroyer of the opposition’s will, a finisher in the lane and a guy worthy of defensive attention beyond the three-point line. If he puts it all together, he can have a Randy Foye or Darrun Hilliard type of Senior year for Jay Wright and cement his place as a Villanova all-timer.
Alongside Hart in the starting line-up is Kris Jenkins. Jenkins looks to be in good shape and the rotation on his jumper remains a thing of beauty. When he gets square to the basket from deep, he is deadly. He is under-rated as a passer, ball-handler, and basketball IQ player. Jenkins makes good decisions with the ball and has the offensive versatility to force teams to guard him wherever he goes on the floor.
As if having those two on the floor for mega-minutes isn’t enough, Coach Wright has the luxury of bringing two wing guys off the bench that can compete with any set of wings that are starting at nearly any program in the country. Sophomore, Mikal Bridges has looked fabulous in late summer practices, the All-Access event and again, yesterday, at the Blue/White scrimmage. Defensively, he covers a ton of ground with his length and quickness but also uses his advanced court sense to be even more lethal defensively. He uses his long arms to collect rebounds and has the handle to turn those rebounds into transition offense. His deep shot has been falling and his dribble-drive game looks better than ever. Bridges will play plenty of minutes and should be expected to pick up where he left off with his great play in March and April that helped the Cats cut down the nets. Eric Paschall is the next piece of the puzzle off the bench. He uses his wide shoulders, strength and leaping ability to score in a variety of ways. Though he can knock down the three-ball when given space, he is most effective as a dribble-drive guy - slashing to the basket or cutting to the rim to get entry passes and finish in traffic. He feasted at the free-throw line in the scrimmage. He has the versatility to play the 3, 4, or 5 spot.
Jay Wright has proven himself time and again at Villanova. What stands out is his ability to adjust his offense to fit the talent and skills that he is able to bring in on the recruiting trail. Early in his career with the Fab Four (Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, Jason Fraser), he brought in more of a traditional line-up and had success with that and his four-out-one-in offense. Then, injuries and a wealth of guard talent allowed him to play various forms of what was called the “take ‘em” offense - spreading the floor and lighting up the opposition with explosive, talented guards. Though he had a couple of dynamite guards in the 2008-2010 era (Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher), it was the versatility of some of his larger wings (Reggie Redding, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark) that provided him the defensive versatility to shut down teams and make even more noise in the NCAAs.
Versatility stood out as a key attribute during the “Ryan Arcidiacono era" as well but what helped the team achieve greatness was the offensive adjustment away from the “take ‘em” philosophy (which perhaps saw its demise with the “burn” offense when Maalik Wayns and Dom Cheek struggled to lead a team with less offensive and defensive versatility) to a more team-oriented offense with better motion off the ball and better passing. What was shown at the blue/white scrimmage was more of what was effective over the last four years - spread the floor on offense, work as a team to get great shots and use multiple dribble-drive threats to get the best looks possible.
What is perhaps under-recognized is how the team uses that versatility on the defensive end. The Cats are physical, strong, and able to guard multiple positions. This provides the kind of flexibility it takes to show the opposition a multitude of different defenses, switch frequently and keep offenses off balance. As was shown repeatedly in last year’s NCAA Tournament, a team that can switch and give a variety of looks can limit the effectiveness of the opposing teams’ primary offensive weapons by creating confusion and uncertainty in the minds of opposing decision-makers.
Recent success has created a sort of golden age for Villanova fans. Consensus Top 5 pre-season rankings and the type of versatility displayed during yesterday’s scrimmage are strong indicators that Jay Wright’s Cats are primed for another successful season.