NEW YORK — Mikal Bridges scored a career-high 28 points while Phil Booth added 20 for No. 4 Villanova as the Wildcats won the opener of the 2017 Jimmy V Classic, 88-72, over No. 12 Gonzaga.
Villanova’s resident All-American was quiet on Tuesday night, spending much of the first half on the bench in foul trouble and finishing with just 12 points and three assists. Generally speaking, that would be a problem for these Wildcats, but they certainly did not need him on this night, as Bridges put together one of the best performances of his career — more on that in a second.
The Zags battled foul trouble all night long. Johnathon Williams III, who was so impressive in Gonzaga’s overtime loss against No. 5 Florida, fouled out after managing all of three minutes in the second half while Killian Tillie, who was Gonzaga’s best player in a win over Creighton on Friday night, was glued to the bench for the first 20 minutes.
Tillie and Williams picked up their second foul less than a minute and a half apart midway through the first half, and Villanova immediately went on a 11-0 run to open up a 28-17 lead that would eventually balloon to 17 points. The Zags would make a couple of runs to cut into the lead, but Villanova was never seriously threatened in the second half.
Here are four things we learned from Tuesday night’s win:
1. VILLANOVA IS MORE TALENTED THAN THEIR 2016 TITLE TEAM
The knock on Villanova during what I’ll refer to as the Hart-Jenkins era — the last four years, where the Wildcats have won four straight Big East titles — is that they’ve had a roster that’s populated by good college players that are, essentially, just that. College players.
During those four years, Josh Hart was the only Villanova player to get picked in the first round of the NBA Draft, and he was the last pick in the first round of the NBA Draft. And that’s not a criticism, mind you, because a return to blue-collar roots, to recruiting players that fit the Villanova Way is what turned Villanova back into a national power.
And rest assured, Jay Wright still has a roster full of “Villanova kids,” but they just so happen to be Villanova kids with a shot at getting on an NBA roster. Bridges might end up being a top ten pick before it’s all said and done. Eric Paschall’s ability to defend and make a three will keep him on the radar of NBA teams. Omari Spellman was a McDonald’s All-American that has NBA upside now that he’s slimmed now. they beat out programs like Duke and Kansas for Jermaine Samuels, and Jalen Brunson is flat-out a top three point guard in college basketball at worst.
That’s what makes this team scary.
They still have selfless kids that will play a certain way, are switchable defensively and can all make shots and play on the perimeter, but instead of simply being good college players, they’re pros.
2. MIKAL BRIDGES FINALLY GONE FROM PROSPECT TO PLAYER, AND HE’S NOW VILLANOVA’S BEST PLAYER
That’s the biggest difference here, the biggest reason that I can confidently say this Villanova team is more talented — and probably better — than a team that won a national title.
For years we’ve been talking about how intriguing he is as a player. That length. That switchability. That perimeter skill. He was on everyone’s “Breakout Star” list after the way he played in the Final Four as a redshirt freshman.
And then he fizzled.
Or, perhaps more accurately, he didn’t have much of a chance to get his with Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins joining him in the front court. But now that those guys are gone, now that his role needs to be as a go-to scorer, he’s embraced it.
He’s thriving in it.
And he’s turned into quite possibly the best wing in college basketball.
3. GONZAGA’S YOUNGSTERS ARE PROMISING
The Zags did not have their best game on Tuesday night, and I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. That’ll happen in college basketball, especially when a team from Washington state is traveling across the country to New York City to play a game against a team as good as Villanova.
So I’m not that worried about Gonzaga.
I am, however, intrigued by some of the younger guys that are on that roster. At this point, the secret is out on Killian Tillie, and Rui Hachimura’s performance in the U19 World Cup this summer let everyone know just how good he can end up being.
I did not, however, realize that Zach Norvell Jr. was ready to have the impact that he had on Tuesday; he went for 22 points and hit four threes against a top four team and is now averaging 20 points over his last three games. The injury to Corey Kispert – who is promising in his own right – was a blessing in disguise; I don’t know if Mark Few even realized what he had in Norvell.
Jacob Larsen got his chance to shine as well. With Williams and Tillie battling foul trouble, Larsen stepped up and had his best game as a collegian. He finished with 10 points, five boards and a pair of assists. He protected the rim, he moved his feet well.
I say all that to say this: As good as the present is for the Zags, the future may be even brighter.
4. VILLANOVA CAN PLAY BIG
Villanova was dealing with some foul trouble to their guards in the first half, and it forced them to play a different lineup that Jay Wright is used to — Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and Bridges all on the floor at the same time.
And it worked!
That’s probably not a lineup that the Wildcats are going to use all that much, but knowing just how good and how big some of Villanova’s title competitors are, it has to be comforting to know that he can matchup that way.