College Hoops Contender Series: Villanova takes their shot at going back-to-back

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

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Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

VILLANOVA WILDCATS

WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because they bring back the majority of the roster from a team that stormed through the Big East for a third straight season and went on to win the national title.

Josh Hart, an NBCSports.com preseason first-team all-american, is back. Kris Jenkins, the guy that his the national title-winning three six months ago, is back. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth all return, while Eric Paschall is eligible after sitting out last season as a transfer.

When you put all that together, what you have is a veteran team that has done nothing other than experience winning at an unbelievable level – the seniors on this team are 97-13 in three years with a 48-6 record in the Big East while winning three outright regular season titles, a Big East tournament title and a national title.

Put another way, the Wildcats return better than 70 percent of the scoring and rebounding from last year’s national title team, putting them in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer all decided to return to Florida and make a run at winning back-to-back titles in 2006-07.

And if the Wildcats can make that happen, it will be a direct result of the versatility that Jay Wright will have on display.

With Daniel Ochefu graduating and Omari Spellman being ruled ineligible, Villanova is going to play a lot of small-ball this season. I wouldn’t be surprised – in fact, I hope it’s the case – if we see Villanova use a Golden State-esque ‘Death Lineup’, where Jenkins plays as their “center” with Hart, Bridges and Paschall on the floor with him. That team would be able to play so many different styles defensively while creating mismatches all over the offensive end of the floor.

For that to work, Hart would have to be a more consistent perimeter shooter while Bridges would need to take a major step forward in his offensive development. We would also need to see Darryl Reynolds prove that he can handle playing 25-30 minutes as the lone big man on the floor for an entire season, something he did adequately in a three-game sample last year.

So there are some things that head coach Jay Wright will have to spend the preseason working out.

But there’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to get that done.

And there’s no reason to believe that Villanova won’t be getting right back to their winning ways.

After all, no one on this roster has ever lost more than five games in a season at Villanova. They don’t know what losing is.

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LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats dunks the ball in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Josh Hart of the Villanova Wildcats (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The way I see it, there are three reasons to be concerned about this Villanova team.

The first is the point guard spot. Losing Ryan Arcidiacono is a major blow, one that many fans may not truly appreciate. Arch was a starter from Day 1 for the Wildcats, spending the last four seasons as an extension of Jay Wright on the floor. It’s not a coincidence that Arch’s arrival coincided with the resurgence of Villanova as a nationally relevant program that could win conference championships and national titles. Wright and Arch had such a strong relationship that teammates jokingly referred to them as father and son. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to refer to the last four years as the ‘Arch Era’.

That’s how important he was to this program.

Now, Jalen Brunson is good. I’m not saying that he isn’t. He does have some of the same length and athleticism question marks that Arch had, and there are valid concerns about his ability to consistently make plays against elite defenders because of it, but there shouldn’t be any doubting his basketball savvy, his intelligence on the floor or his ability to lead. One NBA scout told me this summer that Brunson is as intelligent of a prospect, in terms of basketball IQ, as he’s ever evaluated. He should be fine, but going from being a secondary point guard as a freshman to the only point guard on the roster of a national title contender as a sophomore is a major leap to make.

I’m also concerned about whether or not Villanova took advantage of the lack of talent in the college game last season. The 2015-16 season was a weird year. Stars weren’t clustered at programs around the country. The nation’s elite freshmen were spread out at programs like LSU, Cal, Mississippi State and Marquette, and that’s before you consider the fact that the class just wasn’t all that good. The question we had about the Wildcats entering the year was whether or not they would be able to beat teams that were chock-full of elite, NBA-caliber talent, and they didn’t necessarily prove that wrong during their run to the title.

The reason Coach K went from avoiding one-and-done prospects to trying to rebuild his roster every year with elite freshmen is that, in basketball, the team with the best players is going to win the majority of the time. Talent matters more in this sport than just about any other, and when you compare Villanova’s roster to, say, Duke or Kentucky or Kansas, it’s pretty obvious which team has more talent.

That said, I’ll admit I’m picking nits when discussing the issue of Villanova’s talent and, to a point, their point guard question marks.

Villanova's Phil Booth interviews teammate Mikal Bridges (25) in the locker room before a practice session for the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

But there is one major issue with Villanova, and I think even the most rabid Wildcat fan will agree with me: Their front court.

Like Arch, I don’t think the value that Daniel Ochefu provided this team can be shown in a box score. His size allowed him to defend opposing bigs in the post and act as a rim protector when Villanova’s perimeter defenders pressured or gambled for steals. His ability to score on the block kept defenses honest and allowed him to work as a pressure release for the Villanova guards; 1-on-1 on the block, and Ochefu was probably going to draw a foul or get two points.

Villanova probably didn’t have that guy heading into the season, and they certainly don’t now that Omari Spellman is being forced to redshirt.

That leaves Darryl Reynolds, who is something of an enigma. He’s spent the last three seasons being little more than a guy that spelled Ochefu or played when he had fouls. But in three games where Ochefu was injured last season, Reynolds was good, averaging 9.0 points and 10.6 boards. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the low-post presence that Ochefu was, but if guys like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall take a step forward in their development on the offensive end, Villanova may not need him to be.

PREDICTION: With all due respect to Xavier, a team that has the talent to be a top ten team and make a Final Four, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Villanova is the heavy-favorite to win the Big East for the fourth straight season.

The Wildcats will be a consensus preseason top five team, and there will be rankings where they end up as high as No. 2 in the country. It’s almost as if Villanova is playing with house money this season. They shed their early-exit demons with last year’s national title, they got Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins back for another season and they have a team that is good enough to get to a Final Four and make a run at being the first team to repeat in a decade.

I hope Villanova fans can appreciate what they’re going to be able to watch this season.

A ride like this doesn’t happen all that often.