Jay Wright, Villanova facing a different challenge this season

College Basketball Villanova Wildcats Jay Wright Eric Paschall

It’s finally time for the other team in town defending a title to face the music. But unlike the Philadelphia Eagles, Villanova says it’s still playing the same tune now as always. 

They are still sticking with the same philosophy that’s worked so well and brought to them to this point, even though most of those players who got it done are gone. And still buying into Jay Wright’s mantra of just playing “Villanova basketball” each time out and see how far it takes them.

Well, how about 165-21 over the last five years, including two national championships and a coach who was just named to assist Gregg Popovich on the U.S. Olympic team.

Yet having lost four mainstays to the NBA: Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman and consensus Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, with Brunson ironically the only one not to go in the first round, many are thinking this is the year the Wildcats come back to earth.

They’ll start to find out beginning on Tuesday night when ‘Nova celebrates Election Day by taking on Morgan State to open its $65 million refurbished Pavilion. And if not then, a week from Wednesday when they host Michigan in a rematch of the last season’s championship game—minus those who’ve gone to the pros on both sides.

Building a team around redshirt senior holdovers Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, infrequently used sophs Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels, graduate transfer sharpshooter from Albany, Joe Cremo and some highly touted freshmen, these ‘Cats figure to be vulnerable, especially early.

But you will never hear them say it. “We try not to think about it at all,” said the 6-foot-7 Paschall, a transfer himself from Fordham, who averaged 10.6 points and 5.3 rebounds for the 36-4 Wildcats last season. 

“We just go out there every day, try to get better every day and play Villanova basketball for forty minutes and see where that takes us by the end of the year. We don’t worry about what we did last year,” he added.

“We don’t worry about the rankings or where we’re picked to do in the Big East. We just try to do what we do every day.”

Why change something that’s been working so well for so long?  The difference is, unlike other years, these ‘Cats are almost starting from scratch. 

“This is a rare situation for us,” conceded the 56-year-old Wright, who passed Al Severance late last season to become the school’s all-time winningest coach, now at 422 wins and counting. 

“I’d rather have at least two of those guys back, and that would be more of a normal transition for us, but it’s also kind of refreshing because there is a lot of new roles except for Eric and Phil,” he said.

“They are two of our best leaders ever [Paschall and Booth]. That’s one area I think we’re going to be strong in, our leadership and I have no concerns about that. In other areas, we have some work to do.”

But with no lack of willing candidates, factoring in all those underclassmen and Cremo, a 6-foot-4 guard who averaged 17.8 points per game for the Great Danes last season. Gillespie saw the most action last season among the sophomores, averaging 4.3 points in 14.4 minutes, with big men Cosby-Roundtree and Samuels getting only spot duty. 6-foot-11 big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season is also back.

While they are expected to step up this season, Wright’s also counting on a quartet of freshmen in point guard Jahvon Quinnerly, forward Saddiq Bey, forward Cole Swider and forward Brandon Slater to gradually move to make their presence felt.

However, he just does not know quickly they will start to get a feel for things. 

“One of the things over the last five years is we’ve won a lot of tournaments and games early because of our veterans,” said Wright, whose club will play its four Big Five games against La Salle, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Penn within a 10-day span in early December. 

“Then as the season went on we got better because of our young guys. This year we might not look as good early. But by the end of the year, we want to be the same type of team.”

Yet it’s unlikely these ‘Cats will match their predecessor’s level of success. There’s simply too much uncertainty, not to mention unproven talent to have lofty expectations.

While ‘Nova still figures to rule the city, teams in the Big East, which the Wildcats have essentially dominated for years—though Xavier technically did win the regular season title last year—may see this as their chance for payback.

Of course, that’s far down the road as Villanova sees it, a mindset which has worked out pretty well lately.

So let the music play. While Villanova may not get the last dance this season, don’t expect the Wildcats to be wallflowers, either.

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