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Big East 2016-17 Season Preview: Villanova Wildcats

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Can the Wildcats avoid the dreaded post-championship hangover?

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Villanova vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

2015-16 Record

35-5, 16-2 Big East; lost 69-67 in Big East Tournament championship game to Seton Hall, won 77-74 against North Carolina in NCAA Tournament final.

Coach

Jay Wright is coming off of his finest season as a head coach, and he’ll prepare to try and do it again in his 16th year at Villanova. He led his team to a national title after falling short of a Big East Tournament championship repeat. Wright has compiled a 354-157 (.693 percent) record over the years as the Wildcats' head coach, and will look to add more wins to his name. Since the Big East realigned in 2013, he has been named the conference's Coach of the Year--sharing the honor last season with Seton Hall's Kevin Willard--every year. With good reason, too, as his Wildcats have won the Big East regular season titles in each of the last three years. His team put an end to the criticism in regards to not excelling in postseason play, especially the doubt stemming from a recent string of early exits, with a championship trophy. Now, everyone wants to know, can he bring his team to do it again?

Key Returnees

Josh Hart: After spending more time in the NBA Draft process than his classmate--Kris Jenkins--did, the 6-6 guard's return to Villanova provides a big boost for the Wildcats. Hart averaged a team-high 15.5 points per game last season, shooting an efficient 51.3 percent on the floor. His abilities aren't just limited to his scoring ability, proving to be a solid rebounder (6.8 boards per game), defender, and a reliable player that could perform in big moments. Entering the 2016-17 season, he was named to the Preseason AP All-America team, becoming the first Wildcat to receive such an honor since Kerry Kittles did in 1995. That's some good company.

Kris Jenkins: The hero of the championship game, Jenkins also dabbled in the draft process before deciding to come back a month before Hart did. He now has the tough task of having to follow up on "The Shot" for the whole season. He's shown that he can rise to the occasion, exploding as one of the Wildcats' big shot takers--and makers--after a shaky start to the 2015-16 season. He came into fruition when the Wildcats needed him most, coming down the stretch of the regular season and spilling into postseason play. Jenkins averaged 13.6 points per game, and leads all returning players with a 3-point shooting percentage of 38.6 percent.

Jalen Brunson: The Adlai E. Stevenson (Ill.) product wasn't a highly touted 5-star recruit to simply be just another piece in Villanova's rotation. Although he was a starter, playing alongside Ryan Arcidiacono, he was on a short leash and didn't have the green light as often as Arcidiacono did. Last season, he averaged 9.6 points per game, expect that--as well as all of his other major statistical categories--to rise as he emerges to the forefront. He's getting the keys to the Ferrari now, and he's shown that when he's given an opportunity to shine, he can deliver (20+ point games against Big 5 rivals Penn and Temple).

Darryl Reynolds: After spending his first two seasons as a reserve that barely played, Reynolds came into his own as the 2015-16 season unfolded. He developed while being Daniel Ochefu's backup, and got to start a few games in Ochefu's absence. In the six games he started, he averaged 6.8 points and 7.8 rebounds, peaking in a 19-point, 10-rebound performance against Providence on Feb. 6. He became a reliable asset in the frontcourt coming down the stretch, and now it's his time to shine.

Key Departures

Ryan Arcidiacono: Over his four years on the Main Line, Arch became synonymous with Villanova Basketball. He had the rare distinction of being a four-year captain, on top of being a starter. Arcidiacono had a penchant for making hustle plays and clutch shots, all while being the floor general for the winningest class in program history. Wright will certainly miss the 1,604 points and 535 assists he tallied in his Villanova career.

Daniel Ochefu: The 6-11 big man just missed reaching the millennium mark in points and rebounds, amassing 1,015 points and 929 rebounds over his four-year career. Initially being known as a defensive specialist and rebounder early in his career, Ochefu displayed his evolution as an all-around center last season, averaging 10.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. He even had a mid-range jumper to show off.

Notable Additions

Eric Paschall: After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, the former Fordham standout and Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year is ready to take the court. The Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. native averaged 15.9 points per game when he last took the court in the 2014-15 season. Since then, he's bulked up to 250 pounds, and Wright plans to use him at times in the frontcourt. He excels at using his athleticism to attack the basket and could provide opposing teams mismatches, as he has the foot speed to dance with guards and the strength to rumble with bigger forwards.

Dylan Painter: With Omari Spellman redshirted for the year, Painter's spot as Reynolds' backup is solidified. Painter is going to get way more minutes than initially expected going into the year, and he's taking it well so far. With a solid showing in Spain, the 6-10 forward/center will help Villanova stretch the floor. He can finish inside or even knock down some shots at the 3-point line. He may not be the most athletic, but he has the skills and the tools to compete.

Donte DiVincenzo: He's not exactly "new." He appeared in just eight games last season, before fracturing his foot. Luckily for him and the Wildcats, he was able to apply for a medical redshirt in time, so he didn't jeopardize a year of eligibility. In the brief moments he had on the court, Divincenzo demonstrated a great leaping ability when it comes to attacking the basket and collecting rebounds, he also was solid on defense. However, his 15 points off of a collective 6-of-21 shooting performance (28.6 percent) was less than ideal. Now, he's back. In preseason exhibitions and games so far, he's shown improvement on the offensive end. He can also knock down his shots from long range, an area he struggled with during his short-lived 2015-16 stint. He's primed to be a contributor off the bench in a do-over of his first year.

Last Season at a Glance

Despite achieving a program-best 35-5 record, it wasn't entirely easy getting to that point. In fact, after suffering a 78-55 beatdown at the hands of Buddy Hield and Oklahoma--in which Villanova shot a horrendous 4-of-32 from long range--the Wildcats looked more like pretenders than they did national championship contenders. The Wildcats bounced back, eventually going on to reclaim a Big East regular season title and eventually reappear in the Big East Tournament finals. They fell to Seton Hall, losing by two, thanks to an Isaiah Whitehead and-one that helped secure a Pirate victory. Whitehead's play defined the Big East Tournament finals, and it reshaped Villanova for the better heading into the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats bulldozed their way into the Elite 8, winning their first three tournament games by an average of 24 points. They then downed top overall seed Kansas, winning 64-59, to go to Houston for the Final Four. Villanova met Hield and the Sooners in the Final Four, but the end result was different this time around. The Wildcats poured it on the Sooners, winning 95-51. The 44-point margin of victory was the largest ever in Final Four history. The blowout launched them into the national championship game, where Jenkins' game winning buzzer-beater catapulted Villanova into college basketball immortality.

Projected Starting Five

Jalen Brunson (6-3, 190) So., G
Phil Booth (6-3, 195) Jr., G
Josh Hart (6-6, 215) Sr., G
Kris Jenkins (6-6, 235) Sr., F
Darryl Reynolds (6-9, 240) Sr., F

Three Reasons for Optimism

Defense of the National Title

When Kris Jenkins sank the 30 foot three-point jumper at the end of the national title game last April, he sent Villanova basketball fans throughout the world into a frenzy. With their first national championship win since 1985, an elephant sized weight was lifted off the backs of head coach, Jay Wright, and the program as a whole. They had avoided the stigma that Villanova was a regular season team; playing well from November to February but failing to perform in March.

Now, in a new season, they face a new pressure. As the national champions, the Wildcats will have a target on their back. While this can be viewed as a negative (teams playing harder to defeat Villanova), this should also be regarded as a positive; a sign of respect from the opponents. With this brand-new sense of stress, Villanova will be in the national spotlight every game. True, teams may bring their “A-game” to every matchup with the Wildcats, but this attention will bring more attention to Jay Wright’s elite (we can say that now) program. Is more attention not what Villanova fans always asked for?

The DMV Senior Pairing

When Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins decided to pass up the NBA draft to return to Philadelphia for their senior season, there was automatically a sense of hope that Villanova could possibly repeat their performance from the 2015-2016 season. See, along with graduated Ryan Arcidiacano, the now senior paring was the backbone of the Wildcat’s season. The two averaged the most points on the team and a combined 29.1 through all 40 games. While Hart’s ruggedness and indefatigability were evident in almost every game he played, Jenkins knockdown 3-point shooting and ability to score at ease added an extra facet to the Wildcat offense.

Now, in a new season with new expectations, the two are anticipated to shine once again. During their preseason visit to Spain where they faced three squads, Villanova finished 3-0, with Josh Hart standing out with 23 points in 25 minutes during their final game.

When the Washington D.C. area pairing is in the starting lineup, the sky is the limit for the Wildcats.

Return/Introduction of Supporting Cast Members

What truly makes Villanova’s program special and unique is their ability to replace stars and still find a way to continue their high standard of play. Ryan Arcidiacono, the timeless wonder, departs the program and leaves a giant hole in his place. What he created cannot be recreated by one player; instead, multiple bodies will have to step up to replace him. While Jalen Brunson, sophomore, and Phil Booth, junior, can replace his offensive output, Hart and Jenkins need to become leaders in the locker room. Arcidiacono was a coach on the floor, mimicking Wright’s calls and keeping the entire team in a methodical flow on the court. While it may be impossible to simply find one solution to fix his loss, Villanova is used to players graduating and finding new solutions. When JayVaughn Pinkston graduated two years ago, no player on the roster seemed prime to take on his role as a physical rebounder and leader on/off the floor. Yet, while Arcidiacono took on a larger responsibility, all of Hart, Miles Bridges, Ochefu, and Reynolds became better rebounders. Yes, Arcidiacono has been the heart and soul of this program for so long, but Villanova fans should be optimistic in the fact that their program is experienced in replacing these types of players while maintaining a level of success.

Three Reasons For Pessimism

Lack of Interior Presences

When Daniel Ochefu left the program in the spring, there was a hope that Omari Spellman would alleviate the loss. However, the NCAA has ruled Spellman ineligible for any games during the 2016-17 season, leaving the Wildcats shorthanded in big men. Darryl Reynolds, a valuable member of last year’s team, returns as the almost definite starter, while Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter have both yet to account for a minute in an NCAA game.

Most likely, Wright will use a large amount of smaller lineups with Jenkins, Bridges, or Paschall as a stretch forward, but this could only augment the issue on the defensive end. Villanova may struggle with teams who play multiple forwards/centers and quick point guards who love to attack the rim with only one established rim protector.

National Title Letdown

Too many times in sports is there a national title winning team who rests in their laurels and does not pay attention to the upcoming season. Teams like Ohio State football in 2015 or UConn basketball in 2014-15 and 2011-12 faltered under the expectations of their previous year’s title. This is not a smear to their talent or dedication to the sport. While this is not always a guarantee and is usually alleviated by a quality coach (see Nick Saban and Alabama), this perhaps could happen to Villanova. Of course, with so much returning talent, one of the greatest coaches in the sport, and new pieces that were not national title winners, this is less likely, but this should be a sense of worry for Wildcat fans.

Jay Wright Potentially Leaving for the NBA

Honestly, there are not many other sources of concern for Villanova. The only other real cause for anxiety is their head coach’s future. With reported interest from the Phoenix Suns over the summer, rumors will continue to swirl as long as Villanova continues to play well. Even though he has constantly denied any association with the NBA or any possibility of taking a job, it will always remain a possibility. Most likely, he stays at Villanova, but for the purpose of this article, it will remain a reason for anxiety.

Best Case Scenario

Repeat National Champions and a Wooden award for Josh Hart

On Sunday, Nov. 6, Josh Hart posted a photo on Instagram with the caption: “Last go around....time to make it special.” For Villanova, the only way they can “make it special” is by repeating as national champs. As the reigning winners of March Madness, expectations are higher than ever before, with only one outcome deemed as a success. With the talent remaining (Hart, Jenkins, Brunson, Bridges, Paschall, Reynolds), it is obviously possible, but, much like last year, their stars need to align at the right time. If they peak too early, they risk fading late. The Wildcats must find a way, once again, to play their best in the postseason.

Worst Case Scenario

Villanova falters under expectations and fails to replace Arcidiacono and Ochefu. Another early exit in March.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, this Villanova team is going to be very talented. In the new-look Big East, even in the worst possible outcome, they will most likely contend for another Big East title and a high seed in the NCAA tournament. Although, if they fail to find a true rim protector alongside Reynolds, or if Arcidiacono’s loss proves too fatal, this team could find themselves on the couch come the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.