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Villanova basketball preview: Familiar faces have Nova in Final Four discussion

Villanova returns several key players as the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off.

All Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds did was go a remarkable 129-17 during their four years at Villanova, win a National championship and go a perfect 16-0 mark in Big Five play. But now they’re gone, leaving Jay Wright to pick up the pieces along the Main Line.

Don’t cry for him, though, because it’s not exactly as if the Wildcats’ cupboard has been left bare. In fact, following seasons with 29, 33, 35 and 33 win seasons, these Cats may wind up right around the same exclusive neighborhood.

That gives you an idea of the kind of depth Wright & co. are expected to have this year, beginning Friday when they take on Columbia. That will be at the Wells Fargo Center, which will serve as their home court this season.

But when you can lose an All-America and NBA first-round draft choice in Hart, an NCAA Championship game hero in Jenkins and a solid defender and rebounder in Reynolds and not really feel it, that’s a statement in itself. Of course, when you still have pre-season All America Jalen Brunson, multi-talented wing player Mikal Bridges, rugged big man Eric Paschall, high flying Donte DiVincenzo, a finally healthy Phil Booth plus highly regarded power forward Omari Spellman to pick up the slack, no wonder Nova is again considered the team to beat in the Big East, not to mention the city.

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The way Wright operates, though, he’ll make sure they bury their press clippings and top 10 national ranking and simply focus on playing what they call “Villanova basketball.” If anything he knows this year’s team has more depth than in recent years.

“Last year we really only had seven guys,” said Wright, who’ll receive the prestigious John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award April 6.  “We couldn't play our usual fast tempo aggressive play due to our limited depth. But our depth this year will give us the chance to press more the way we want to, player faster like we want to, and lets us be more aggressive on defense.”

Losing the firepower Hart and Jenkins provided means defense figures to be even more important for these ‘Cats, who’ve also lost their leading shot blocker in Reynolds.  They’re eager for the challenge.

“We’re really long and athletic and we play really good defense,” said Bridges, whom many are projecting to join Brunson as ‘Nova’s next candidates for the NBA. “But with some young guys coming in and new guys playing we just really have to focus on getting our chemistry down on the court, especially on defense. We don't pay any attention to all that other stuff. All we focus on is the other guys on this team and our mission.”

The rest will take care of itself, though Booth, who missed all but three games last season with injuries, is just happy to be back. 

“I’m 100 percent healthy,” said the versatile swingman, who many may have forgotten came off the bench to score a team high 20 points in the National championship game win over North Carolina. “I’m getting my athleticism and my rhythm back. I feel comfortable again. It feels good to be playing out there with no pain and worrying about the knee. Sitting out for a year you miss the game. It’s definitely something I would not want to do again, so it’s a lot of fun to be back out there.”

Fun is something generally associated with Villanova opponents, who’ve seen the Wildcats have their way for the most part the last four years.  That may change a bit this year, as Wright adjusts to playing without his departed stars.  But probably not for long.

“There's going to be a lot of attention on Jalen, Mikal and especially Phil coming off an injury last year,” said 3-point specialist DiVincenzo, whose tip-in at the buzzer beat Virginia last year. “So we have a ton of weapons and should be very balanced in scoring. I think we’ll be ready.”

To the dismay of everybody else, no matter who’s gone through the years, the Wildcats usually are.

 
 
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