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Villanova finds success with roster built for the long haul

The Wildcats stay together for years, know each other’s tendencies and play with a fluidity that’s fun to watch

SAN ANTONIO — As the Villanova Wildcats stood on the podium on the floor of the Alamodome waving their Final Four towels, the sounds of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blared through the arena speakers. It was a coronation that likely had opposing basketball coaches considering a re-evaluation of their approach to winning a basketball title.

Consider this: Jalen Brunson, the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year, scored a season-low nine points on Monday night. Just one starter on what was clearly the best team in college basketball throughout the season scored in double figures. And yet Villanova was able to beat Michigan rather easily, 79-62, to win the school’s third national title.

Two titles in three years, and a solid nucleus in place for next season if the core components return, have placed the Wildcats among the upper echelon of college basketball.

Even if coach Jay Wright tries to downplay it.

“We don’t really judge ourselves on being called elite,” said Wright, who became the 14th coach to lead a team to two national titles. “We judge ourselves on how the guys do in school, how they grow as men and how we play night in and night out.”

It’s Villanova’s play in recent years that’s earned the team the elite label. And Wright, the two-time Naismith Coach of the Year winner (2006 and 2016), has taken the team to that level without a single one-and-done player since he arrived at the suburban Philadelphia school in 2001.

The closest thing to a one-and-done player in Wright’s 17 years at Villanova? That would be Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors All-Star guard who was drafted in the first round of the 2006 NBA draft after two years at Villanova. Of the four other draft picks whom the Wildcats have produced under Wright, all of them (first-round picks Josh Hart and Randy Foye and second-round picks Darrun Hilliard and Dante Cunningham) stayed at Villanova for four years.

It’s not that Wright’s not reaching out to the blue-chip recruits who often wind up at prestigious basketball schools such as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina.

“We’re trying, we really are,” Wright said when asked about getting one-and-done players. “Josh Hart could have left early last year. Kyle Lowry played two years. We want guys that just want to be in college and want to be pros.”

So instead of getting a roster stacked with McDonald’s All-American recruits, Villanova lands a few with Golden Arches status (Brunson) and a lot with In-N-Out-level reputations.

Guys like redshirt junior Mikal Bridges, a versatile 6-foot-7 guard who’s the best NBA prospect and a likely lottery pick if he enters the draft this year.

Guys like junior guard Phil Booth, whose game-high 20 points in Villanova’s 2016 national championship game victory over North Carolina is overlooked by the clutch game-winning shot by Kris Jenkins.

Guys like junior forward Eric Paschall, who practiced with the 2016 national title team after transferring from Fordham, where he was the Atlantic 10 Conference Rookie of the Year in 2015.

And guys like redshirt sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, who also sat out that championship season with an injury. DiVincenzo came off the bench to score a game-high 31 points in the win over Michigan, giving the Wildcats two championships in three years where the leading scorer wasn’t among the starting five.

The Villanova players stay together for years, know each other’s tendencies and play with a fluidity that’s fun to watch. Their extended time together with kids who play for four years is often a trait carried by a dangerous mid-major school. Villanova brings those qualities with high-major talent.

So players like Brunson stay, at a time when the tendency of some kids is to withdraw from school as soon as the basketball season ends.

“When Jay came out, he had just won the MVP of the 19-and-under FIBA world championships and people were saying he’s one-and-done,” Wright said. “He just said, ‘I want to get my degree, I want to be in college.’ We want kids that want to be in college, and then we hope that after one year of college they have a really difficult decision to that if the NBA wants you, but you really enjoy college.”

And it’s clear the players at Villanova really enjoy being around each other, because of the way they hugged each other in the postgame celebration and the amount of praise they heaped upon one another during their careers.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen at Kentucky or Kansas, but it’s refreshing to witness the kids offer that level of support and love for each other over multiple years.

Which pays dividends on the basketball court.

“It starts with Coach Wright and his mentality of recruiting great young men, not just on the basketball court but in the classroom, and obviously as a person,” Brunson said after Monday’s game. “We’re very intelligent on and off the floor, and I think that’s a credit to just making sure he gets the right people for this program.”

Villanova was able to solidify its status as a model program in college basketball with Monday’s title.

“I think this is even more exciting,” said Booth. “This is a different group, and we’re just as hungry as the last group.”

Next year, there will be a new group. Bridges is likely gone as a lottery pick. Brunson, who will graduate after his junior season, is probably gone as well, likely to have a successful NBA career but quite possibly not as a first-round pick.

Should they step out, Wright’s already arranging some pieces for others to step up.

“We have a chart with three years, three years out and then a list under the chart of all the players we’re recruiting, and we have a roster of our team on that chart and we change it based on our guys’ play,” Wright said. “Jalen, we list it as a senior this year, like, so we knew that guy’s going to go. As Mikal starts playing really well this year, all right, he’s gone, you move him up a year.”

The likely loss of Brunson and Bridges means Villanova’s success next year will likely rely on the next man up.

That might not be a problem, if Monday’s blowout win over Michigan with just one starter scoring in double figures is an indication.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.