How to Watch, Stream, Listen
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: FS2 (Scott Graham and Donny Marshall)
Streaming: FOX Sports Go
Radio: 610 Sports Radio (Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby)
Line: Villanova opened as 26.5 point favorites
Villanova leads Columbia with a 4-2 record between the two teams, although it’s hard for longtime nationers to forget the last matchup in 2012, when the Lions upset Villanova 75-57.
What to Watch For
A new home this season / Need to execute well vs. the Lions
This is an important game for ‘Nova. It might not be the most challenging game the ‘cats play this month (in fact, their first three might be the easiest part of their entire regular season schedule) but it’ll give them a chance to see how they hold up in a real game setting. The exhibition game at the start of November gave us somewhat of an idea, but the atmosphere on-campus at the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse will be hard to replicate at the Wells Fargo Center. Because the Pavilion - which is one of the hardest courts to come in as a visitor and win at - is going through renovations this year, the team will have to get used to playing off-campus, and in a much larger arena. With petitions flying around the student sphere for free busses to/from games, and talks of ‘tailgate season’ lasting all season… I somehow doubt there will be many empty spots in the student section, but there’s no denying it won’t be the same as the on-campus environment.
It isn’t generally expected that Columbia will trouble the ‘cats much, but with senior guard Kyle Castlin coming back from a year off (due to a toe injury) and returning sophomore Mike Smith, they shouldn’t be written off just yet. Smith spent the summer honing his skills with Jimmy Butler - a Big East alum and NBA all-star who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves - so be ready for him to make an impact in the game. This early in the season teams are still trying to figure out how they fit together, and Villanova is not immune to that. They’ll have to make sure they come into the game with the right mindset, as head coach Jay Wright is well-aware.
"It's a scary opener," stated Wright. "One of the things we aren't pleased with is that we haven't been a real efficient, sound team yet. When you play a team like Columbia, which is very well-coached, they execute extremely well. Those kinds of teams can get you, especially early in the season. You might be well conditioned and you might still be developing your personnel but you might not be executing it well. That’s what concerns me.”
Guide to the New Villanova Team
There’s no denying that this year’s team is going to look much different on the court than last season. After graduating Josh Hart (currently playing for the Lakers), Kris Jenkins (currently playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in the NBA G League) and Darryl Reynolds (recently moved to Poland to play professionally for TBV Start Lublin) there’s no denying that a lot of talent has left the program. The three were all instrumental in the championship of ‘16, but let’s not pretend that the team is going to be completely devastated by the loss of all but two of the starters from last season.
A welcome return to the Wildcats roster will be Phil Booth, who took a medical redshirt last season due to a well-documented knee injury. He has the skill, the knowledge, and the ability to make a huge impact - we saw that in the championship game when he scored 20 points, missing only one of the shots he took the entire game. He led the team with 28 minutes in the exhibition game, and if he had any knee pain he didn’t show it - unlike his few playing minutes early last season where he was obviously limping and held back by the injury. He’s a solid defender, and a good enough ball handler to step in as point guard when the leading man needs a break.
Speaking of Jalen Brunson… prepare to see how good this kid really is. The similarities to alum Ryan Arcidiacono are irrefutable, but last season he was somewhat lost in the shadow of Hart and Jenkins. It looks like he’s going to graduate a year early and head to the NBA, so Villanova better enjoy him while they can. He’ll be the big man on campus this year, and the one other teams will have their eyes on. The good thing about other players trying to shut him down is the fact that he knows how to pass the ball - he can always find an open man, and keeps his turnovers fairly low. Brunson’s classmate Donte DiVincenzo will also have to step up this year. Known as ‘The Michael Jordan of Delaware’ in high school, he has all the tools. He’s quick, tall, aggressive, and rebounds in a way you wouldn’t expect by looking at him. With age - and maturity - the guard’s shooting percentage should improve this season from last, and he’ll likely be a well-rounded player that the ‘cats can put in any time.
Now for the two players who started on the bench for the exhibition game because they had a test that night (let’s not forget the first part of ‘student-athlete’). Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall are preparing for much more time on the court this season than either saw last year. Bridges was one third of the Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year (he shared that with teammate Josh Hart and Creighton's Khyri Thomas) last season, and expect more of the same this year. His shooting percentage is likely going to continue to be great, so look for him to become a little more offensive - if he shoots more, odds are he’ll score more. Paschall is another big, athletic player for Villanova. He’s grown three inches since he got to college - starting at 6’6” and now measuring in at 6’9” - and will be fighting for a starting position with his teammates.
Now for the new guys. Omari Spellman sat out last season (not getting into that here) but is able to play now. He won’t have to fight for a spot on the court for tip off - and if he plays like he did at the exhibition game he probably never will. The first shot of the game was him sinking a three, and he shot 75% from the floor. The word ‘unstoppable’ comes to mind.
Three freshman are also joining the Wildcats; Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillespie, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Samuels has raw talent - he needs some playing time and some confidence, and is reminiscent of Hart in the early days. These first few games could be when Wright puts him in here and there, helping him adjust to college ball. Gillespie led his high school team to the PA state championship this spring, and Wright was quoted saying “Collin’s guard skills, basketball IQ, and winning instincts will be a welcome addition to our program.” Look for him in Jenkins’ old number 2 - and don’t be surprised when a large amount of fans show up in his number. He’s also going to be hoping for playing time early on - this first game of the season might be the perfect time for Wright to test out his new guys. Cosby-Roundtree started the exhibition game, although it's doubtful he will start again this season. He’s 6’9” and 220 pounds, so when Spellman needs a breather he’ll get some minutes.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Don’t get me wrong, this team is going to be fun to watch on offense. Prepare to see Spellman sinking a couple three pointers a game, making it near impossible for Brunson to be double teamed. Get ready to watch a team with more energy than last season - the fresh legs that Villanova gets with the depth it so desperately needed last season will give them staying power, and allow them to work harder for longer. Plus, it’s been awhile since they had two big guys that were any good - with enough players in each position for everyone to get enough minutes on the bench (what a concept) Villanova is going to be even tougher to take down than they have been recently.
More importantly - to head coach Jay Wright especially - will be the defensive side of the 2017-18 team. Wright is known for his ‘play good defense or don’t play at all’ mentality, and it’ll be interesting to see how that pans out in this first game. Brunson and Spellman are both going to score, there’s no doubt about that - they are just that good. However, those two will have to push harder defensively in order to impress their coach, and shut down the Lions.
If you want to get an idea of the defense Wright is looking for, watch DiVincenzo. The 6’5”, 205lb guard plays a lot tougher than his size. He’ll crash the boards on the rebounds like anyone - he racked up 137 in total last season. He’s a bit like Hart in that regard - the effort is there. He wants the ball more than the other players, and because of that it’s more likely to end up in his hands.