Two years ago — back when the thought of Villanova winning a national championship was a crazy fantasy — Josh Hart was in the place Mikal Bridges is now. After coming off the bench as a freshman he had nudged his way into Jay Wright’s starting lineup, only beginning to come of age.
That’s not to say the smooth, versatile Bridges will eventually develop his game to the extent of Hart, now the Wildcats’ leading scorer and an All-America candidate. Or maybe he will.
“He’s just learning to be a starter at this level,” said Wright after Bridges scored 15 points, handed out four assists and had zero turnovers as the No. 1 ranked Wildcats completed their preseason 12-0 with a 90-48 romp over American U., which was a lot tougher than it sounds. “That means you have to play hard every minute and play a lot of minutesBut he can guard guards, guard forwards, hit threes, drive, press. He’s really a complete basketball player.”
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With the 6-foot-7 sophomore from nearby Malvern doing a bit of everything, Villanova is becoming a complete team.
“Itry to set the tone. Just learning how to do it,” said Bridges,averaging 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds, while shooting a blistering 62 percent. "It’s a struggle, especially in a game like tonight [where ‘Nova trailed early and was only up 40-29 at the half, before taking command].
“It’s something I’ve got to work on.”
With the Big East season finally about to get underway Wright and company know it’s time to get down to business.
“It’s kind of like a new season,” said Wright, with DePaul here Wednesday, followed by back-to-back road games against Creighton and Butler. “We break it down into preseason, league season and postseason.
“I always say I try to judge where our program is by how we do in the Big East. If we’re at the top of the Big East, our program is in good shape.”
His players can’t wait and relish the challenge of being the game everyone circles on their schedule.
“Everybody gonna play their best game against us and we love it,” said Bridges, who doesn’t think there’s any extra pressure being the hometown kid. “If we can play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball we’re gonna be tough.
“The Big East is real tough; one of the best conferences in the country. It’s gonna be a battle every game we play from now on.”
Wright has no idea how soon he’ll get some reinforcements from Phil Booth who’s missed the past nine games with a sore knee. But as long as his three seniors Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds can police the rest of the team, he’ll take his chances.
“We just talked. No yelling,” he said of the halftime discussion that triggered a 50-19 second half blitz. “It all started with the three seniors.When the three seniors take control, everyone falls into place. It’s that simple.”
Still, it’s got to give those seniors and the rest a boost when underclassmen like Bridges and fellow sophomore Jalen Brunson (14 points and six assists) chip in. How good can he be? Bridges downplays such talk, including suggestions he might someday be good enough to make the NBA.
“I’m just trying to work on everything,“ said Bridges. “Not just offense or defense.I’m not worrying about that other stuff. I just go out there and play. But if I keep working and my teammates keep pushing me I can get a lot better.”
For now, though, Mikal Bridges is doing just fine, as are the top ranked Wildcats. A big part of the secret to their success is Hart, the same guy who was just beginning to find himself two years ago at this time.
‘Nova fans can only hope the pattern repeat itself.