Before the exhibition game even started in the Wells Fargo center, emotions were running high, and the crowd was already roaring.
The 2016 Villanova national championship banner hung in the rafters, displayed alongside an updated 1985 one. Head coach Jay Wright was touched by the act, and thankful that the Wells Fargo center reached out and offered to do it. However, Wright made sure it didn’t affect the game. He’s expressed his concerns before about a championship hangover, but if Saturday indicated anything, it was that there was no need to worry.
His Wildcats operated without a hitch, picking up right from where they left off last year with a win over IUP. Villanova downed the Crimson Hawks 94-49 in an exhibition game.
“It was great,” said Kris Jenkins, the national championship hero, in regards to returning to the court. “Just to be out there with my teammates, that’s what means the most to me.”
Jenkins didn’t start the game, but came off the bench and should be expected to resume his starting duties for the rest of the season. He wasn’t among the starting five due to not hitting his target weight earlier in the week. Wright made it clear that Jenkins wasn’t being punished, and that it wasn’t a big deal, but he was getting treated like the rest of the team.
Regardless, his impact was still felt, supplying 11 points, three rebounds, and four assists. He sank a jumper with 9:20 remaining in the first half give Villanova a 23-13 lead. Once Jenkins’ basket stretched the lead into double figures, the Wildcats hardly looked back.
In fact, Villanova never lost the lead once it darted ahead in the opening seconds of the game. Mikal Bridges, who started in place of Jenkins, drained a 3-pointer on the first play of the game with the assistance of Josh Hart.
After that assist, Hart scored a quick two points in an effortless layup. The AP Preseason All-American lived up to the title, finishing with a game-high 27 points, four rebounds, and five assists. The senior finished with impressive stats, but that isn’t what stood out to head coach Jay Wright.
“I was really impressed with Josh Hart today, not basketball-wise,” Wright said, laughing. “That too, but his leadership, and his mentality really impressed me. Very impressive.”
With Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated, the team is looking a little different. Wright commented that the team has “four shoes to fill, four really big shoes.” It seems that the Wildcats are finding an answer in their current captains, as well as sophomore Jalen Brunson, who is now the team’s full-time starting point guard. So far, he looked fine bearing the greater responsibility.
“He did a great job,” Wright said of Brunson’s performance. “He was the first one to take himself out of the game, because he exhausted himself early – which was awesome.”
Brunson played 18 minutes, logging 11 points, three rebounds, and five assists. He did not miss a single shot, sinking all three of his shot attempts from long range and a pair of free throws.
The Wildcats took a 51-23 at halftime. From there, they continued to build off of their first half success, never letting up on the Crimson Hawks.
Aside from Hart, Jenkins, and Brunson, Bridges (17 points) and Eric Paschall (18 points) also eclipsed double figures in scoring.
Villanova shot the ball very well all game long, making 34-of-58 (58.6 percent) shot attempts and an impressive 17-of-31 (54.8 percent) from beyond the arc.
Defensively, the Wildcats were locked in, holding IUP to shooting a subpar 18-of-58 (31.0 percent) overall and a slightly worse 9-of-30 (30.0 percent) from deep.
The Crimson Hawks were paced by Blake Danielak‘s 13 points, followed closely by Anthony Glover, who had 11. IUP, a Division II school, played in an exhibition last week against Syracuse. The Crimson Hawks gave the Orange a bit of a scare, before Syracuse pulled away late to win 83-69. They weren’t able to replicate the same success this time around against Villanova.
The Wildcats’ preseason has been nothing but successful, although there have been challenges. They will come back to their home crowd at the cozy Pavilion and for the first time in 144 games, they’ll be playing without Arcidiacono, who’s been the heart and soul of the team over the last four years.
“I went to go get taped, and I thought I was going to see Ryan out there,” Hart said, smiling. “Definitely, a different feel.”
The Wildcats will play their first official game as reigning national champions this Friday night, as they host Lafayette. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m.
“I’m excited every time we step out on the court, but especially in front of our home crowd,” Jenkins said. “You know, we love them, we love the Pavilion. They give us an extra burst.”