By Peter Gleason
Villanova lost four players to the NBA last spring — all drafted in the Top 33 — and the Cats’ first-year players have been sub-prime, which led to upsets along the way.
But they are favored for a third straight Big East Tournament title starting today against Providence.
The Wildcats are 22-9, 13-5 in the conference, but:
”We’re still a work in progress but we feel good,” coach Jay Wright said.
This has traditionally been the time of the season when the Wildcats work toward progressing deep into the NCAA Tournament. But Wright has kept the Wildcats together, even as they:
Navigated the losses of Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman, Donte DiVincenzo and Mikal Bridges.
Saw freshmen Jahvon Quinerly, Brandon Slater, Cole Swider and graduate transfer Joe Cremo slog through injury and ineffectiveness.
Lost consecutive home games to Michigan and Furman; lost to Penn for the first time since 2002; and lost to five Big East teams after losing only four games all season each of the last two years.
Lost three straight games for the first time since 2012-13.
Felt the loss of top assistant Ashley Howard to the head coach job at La Salle.
”It was a different job,” Wright said. ”You never know from the outside what a team goes through in the inside. But this was a really good group. A young group. But a relatively easy group to coach.”
Phil Booth, a two-time national champion, and Eric Paschall have eased the burden of a youth movement by absolutely carrying the Wildcats in the second half to big wins. The senior stars both average in the 35-minute range and are 1-2 in scoring. Wright has mostly used a seven-man rotation and let Booth and Paschall lead the way down the stretch to win critical games, turning to his reliable rotation stars rather than newbies.
”Did we develop our freshmen class as much as we’d like? No,” Wright said. ”But do we feel good about them going forward? Yes.”
Booth, Paschall, Saddiq Bey – the only freshman who has shown flashes of productivity – Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels will start. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Cremo are his top two reserves off the bench.
”Everybody’s career is different,” Wright said. ”They might not be as ready this year, but I think they will be. They’ll have really good careers, all of them. They just weren’t maybe as ready as some of the other guys.”