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Who is Villanova’s biggest X-Factor going into March? Omari Spellman

The redshirt freshman has been excellent in many ways this year

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Wright had a reason to make a change. He saw that he could pick up the pace for player of the year candidate Jalen Brunson, and he catalyzed that by using his centers differently.

Since Daniel Ochefu graduated in 2016, the Villanova Wildcats have relied on a number of undersized mobile big men and implemented a fast-paced scheme with fungible parts. Darryl Reynolds, who graduated last year, couldn’t quite protect the rim or stretch the floor, but his mobility became a linchpin by backing up aggressive defenders in Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Eric Paschall has filled that role admirably, but he’s dealing with a concussion. As a result, Omari Spellman set the table for Brunson, Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo to fill up the scoreboard.

The #3 team in the country might have its most versatile big man, who gives them a more modern look.

Very few four-around-one offenses revolve around the center. Spacing creates opportunity– which DiVincenzo took for 30 points Saturday– and the ability of the big man to affect the game in subliminal ways. Secure big rebounds. Switch out onto perimeter defenders. Sometimes it boils down to not getting in your quicker teammates ways.

The six-foot-eight center, who finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds against Butler has filled all of these simple responsibilities more adequately than Tyrique Jones, Tyler Wideman, or other Big East centers. When Butler went small down the stretch and put six-foot-six Kelan Martin at the five, Spellman used his combination of power and finesse to keep himself on the floor. Very few players could have kept up, and he is able to contribute more than most big men in limited roles as a result.

The Wildcats switched between zone and man defenses in the second half, and one of the most important parts of the equation was Spellman’s comfort taking on different roles. Several times, he switched out onto Kamar Baldwin on the perimeter. Then, Jay Wright changed into a 2-3 zone and relied on Spellman to secure nearly every rebound and find Bridges or Brunson with crosscourt outlet passes.

The redshirt freshman, who is averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds in 27 minutes on the season, is powerful rebounder, soft touch and a 44.4 three-point percentage.

Never before has Wright had a player who can bang inside and stretch the floor like Spellman. Yet one of his biggest strengths is that he doesn’t demand the ball. He only took four shots against the Bulldogs– two of them from beyond the arc– but drew three fouls and finished 5-6 from the line. He moves the ball quickly when he catches it on the perimeter or in the post and plays within his role in the offense.

He combines all of these abilities with his knack for forceful dunks and shot blocks. Twice against Butler, they fouled Spellman as he was about to flush a putback jam, and he sent Sean McDermott packing early in the second half, his most flex-worthy moment so far this season.

Villanova fell to Wisconsin last year in the NCAA Tournament mostly because they lost the interior battle. Ethan Happ drew too much attention, forcing the Wildcats to give Nigel Hayes less attention than he merited. On a team with similar pieces, Spellman could be a game changer to impact the game against another post-minded foe. Or he could dominate the interior against an opponent that goes small. Paschall will return in the near future, but few things are more meaningful than a game-changing small ball five.