The Wildcats had every reason to enter the 2016-17 season filled to the brim with confidence. Kris Jenkins capped off his junior season by shooting his way into American college sports folklore. Josh Hart was named a preseason All-American by the Associated Press and is near the top of the Naismith Award watch list. Jalen Brunson met all expectations that Villanova had for its prized recruit. And the team, as a whole, has flowed seamlessly into this year as a legitimate contender for repeating as National Champions.
The question was: Could would the Wildcats be too confident to the point where they may be negatively affected by their place at the center of the national spotlight? Would Jenkins, whose shot redefined the tournament’s theme of “One Shining Moment,” begin a furious descent from the highest peak ever reached in the history of the game? Would the rumbles of the NBA become a distraction for Hart, Brunson, and even Mikal Bridges?
A lot of players may not be able to handle the type of glorious and accolade-filled offseason this group has endured. And such pressure may have been reflected with some underwhelming performances early in the new year. But a lot of players are not Villanova Wildcats.
Head coach Jay Wright has developed a confidence balance that has become a large part of the “Villanova Basketball” brand he has established during his tenure. That balance is facing its toughest test in Wright’s 16th season, and so far, it appears to be holding up. The Wildcats are crisp, clean, and dominant–among many other traits that could be used to their play–through five games this season. They are showing no signs of over-confidence. If their play could speak, it would say, “We are the champs, and we are for real…again.”
Let’s start with Hart. In three games at the Gildan Charleston Classic last weekend, he shot 61 percent from the field. He was 11-of-14 with six 3-pointers in a 30-point performance against Wake Forest last Friday. In all, Hart scored 59 points in three games in Charleston and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. That performance, combined with his 24-point outing against Purdue last Monday, was enough to earn him Big East Player of the Week honors as well.
The impressive part is not the rate at which Hart is scoring this year, although his 19.2 points per game should not be overlooked. But the ways in which he is scoring are equally impressive. Hart is decisive with the ball in his hands and nearly untouchable on his way to the inside of the paint. And once he arrives there, he can finish a contested shot or stop on a dime to float a jump shot over a defender. He has always had a wide range of skills on the offensive end, but Hart is looking more dangerous than ever in 2016-17.
Hart’s confidence has spread like wildfire to the rest of his teammates. His classmate Jenkins put his on display against UCF by repeatedly making plays to deny the Knights’ 7-foot-6 center, Tacko Fall, the ball in the post. The combination of experience and ability that resulted in those plays is invaluable and helped Villanova overcome the mismatch of Fall against Reynolds.
Brunson, the latest name on a list of Wright-era point guards that includes Kyle Lowry, Scottie Reynolds, and Ryan Arcidiacono, has stepped in full-time to run the show and is doing it beautifully. After spending one year under the wing of the aforementioned Arcidiacono, Brunson has taken another massive step forward and is worthy of being mentioned as one of the nation’s top guards.
And Bridges, a key role player off the bench, was asked to start the last two games in Charleston in place of an injured Phil Booth. Against Wake Forest, he dropped 19 points with seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Then he followed that up with 10 points, five rebounds, and three steals against UCF. There are not many “bench players” in the country that can get plugged into the starting lineup and put up those types of numbers. But because of confidence in himself and the confidence of his coaches and teammates, Bridges was able to expand from his usual role and show up with a pair of big time performances over the weekend.
Hart, Jenkins, Brunson, and Bridges are at the center of a squad that is playing with confidence in its entirety. As they move into a stretch that includes a home game against The College of Charleston and Big Five contests against Penn, St. Joseph’s, and La Salle, look for the rest of the Wildcats to have performances similar to those mentioned above. It has been an exciting start for ‘Nova, with no obvious signs of slowing down.