By Harry Allison
Kentucky and its coach John Calipari have gotten a lot of notice lately because of their ability to attract NBA-bound players.
HBO even did a doc:
“One and Done.”
Villanova and coach Jay Wright have yet to have a one-and-done player.
From 2010 to 2017, there were 205 players listed as five-star recruits, according to 247Sports’ composite recruiting rankings.
Villanova landed just two, Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman. (A third, Jahvon Quinerly, will join the Wildcats in the 2018 class.)
Five schools (Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Missouri, and UCLA) signed at least two five-stars in the 2017 class alone.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, hardly recruit nationally: Every scholarship player on their roster except Jermaine Samuels and Brunson went to high school in Pennsylvania or a state that borders it, and Brunson spent most of his childhood in southern New Jersey.
As the Ringer.com has written:
Still, over the past five years, Villanova has compiled the best record in college basketball at a whopping 171-22. The Wildcats are 32-4 this season with just one potential loss remaining on their schedule, meaning they’ll finish with five or fewer losses in five straight seasons. The only other team to have five or fewer losses in even four of the past five seasons is Gonzaga, which plays in the piddly West Coast Conference. (Assessing the standing of Villanova’s conference, the reincarnated Big East, is a matter of much angst. By the makeup of its members—10 private schools, none of which have top-tier football teams—it looks like a mid-major league; by any reasonable basketball-related standard, it is a major conference.)
The Wildcats have done it through offense. Villanova has been ranked in the top five of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense metric for the past four years, coming in fourth, third, third, and first, respectively. And in Wright’s estimation, this is the best offense he’s ever coached—even better than the one that scorched nets en route to a national title two years ago.
There is, it seems, a market inefficiency when it comes to putting together a competitive roster of 17- to 22-year-old basketball players: In 2018, we acknowledge that 3-point shooting has an outsize importance at all levels of the sport, but shooting might be the most difficult trait for elite-level college programs to identify in prospective athletes. You can tell from a young age which players have great athletic traits—it’s easy to identify the muscular 6-foot-8 kids with pogo sticks for legs—yet shooting is a finesse-based skill that players often get exponentially better at after they’ve already enrolled in college, or even after they’ve reached the pros. Sure, you can look at a player’s high school shooting stats and analyze their form on tape. But how can you really know which good athletes will develop the most important skill in basketball slightly better than everyone else?
Wright thinks he knows. “We like to get guys that are basketball junkies. Usually those are pretty good shooters,” he said after Villanova won its Big East quarterfinal matchup with Marquette. “But they don’t have to be great shooters. Because if they’re junkies, and they love being in the gym, they’re smart offensive players, and they’ll develop their shooting.”
Take Mikal Bridges, the best pro prospect Wright has coached in more than a decade. While some top high school recruits see their freshman year as a temporary stopover en route to an NBA gig, Bridges’s freshman year was a means to actually playing at Villanova. He redshirted in 2014-15, a rarity for a heavily recruited player with no eligibility issues, so that he could bulk up and learn to shoot. In his year off from playing, he added 32 pounds and reconstructed his form. “We fell in love with what he could be,” former Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy told Sports Illustrated in December.
Even after redshirting, Bridges wasn’t a lights-out shooter—he shot 29.9 percent from beyond the arc in his first year in Villanova’s rotation, serving as a defensive sub on the 2016 championship squad.DraftExpress wrote in 2016 that Bridges “[had] a lot of room to grow as a shot-maker from the perimeter.” Suffice it to say, he has grown: He was one made 3-pointer away from being a 50-40-90 shooter as a sophomore, and has hit 44.2 percent of his 3s this season. Bridges’s shooting helps the Wildcats in all sorts of critical moments: His knockdown 3 on a busted play in overtime helped Villanova win the Big East tournament title game over Providence, and he’s the one who sparked the hot shooting run against Alabama over the weekend. He scored 19 points in the first 5:30 of the second half, including making 3s on four consecutive Villanova possessions. “Alabama is dead, and Mikal Bridges killed them,” wrote Deadspin.