SAN ANTONIO — We were all thinking it.
John Beilein said it.
“This is the Golden State Warriors here,” the Michigan head coach said, one day after watching Villanova set a record for the most three-pointers made in a Final Four game and one day before his team will be tasked with trying to stop that avalanche from coming. “This is Draymond Green-type of thing where your [big] guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything.”
The big guys that Beilein is referring to are Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, and they are what makes Villanova impossible to slow down.
I know Villanova has Jalen Brunson, and yes, he is the superstar, the National Player of the Year that can break your team’s spirit without breaking a sweat or cracking a smile. When he wants to take a game over, he is taking that game over.
“If he was the only one out there, you could do some things [defensively],” Beilein said.
Mikal Bridges is a potential lottery pick on the wing. Donte DiVincenzo probably has an NBA career in his future as well, and Phil Booth has proven to be a more than adequate role player as a redshirt junior.
But Spellman and Paschall are the difference-makers. They are the guys that create the mismatches, the players that force opposing big men to make a decision: Either they are going to chase their front court counterparts around on the perimeter, leaving space for guards to penetrate without any rim protection, or they are going to help and pray that their rotations are fast enough that one of Villanova’s half-dozen three-point snipers doesn’t get a wide-open look.
Neither option works.
And what makes them truly special is that neither of them will be overpowered or a liability defensively. Paschall is one of the most explosive leapers in the country, and at 6-foot-6 with long arms and the ability to move his feet, he’s the prototype of a switchable wing. Spellman is a beast, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound behemoth that has, in this tournament, really shown off his athleticism, shot-blocking and strength inside.
The most impressive part?
Both of them were fat when they arrived at Villanova.
To truly appreciate where Omari Spellman is in his life right now you have to understand just how difficult it was for him when he arrived at Villanova less than two years ago.
At the time, Spellman was a balloon. He was right around 300 pounds, a five-star prospect that had all kinds of potential buried underneath his 25 percent body-fat. Spellman knew that, eventually, he would have to get himself into shape, but what he didn’t know was just how much time he was going to have to do it during his first year on campus.
Spellman had to redshirt his first year on campus. The NCAA ruled that he was a fifth-year player coming out of high school, that he didn’t get his core credit completed within the required window of time because they determined that his high school clock had started when he repeated the eighth-grade.
Villanova appealed the ruling, but the NCAA wasn’t hearing it.
“Coach called me into his office, and he just sat me down,” Spellman said. “‘The appeal came up. You’re not going to be able to play.’ I just broke down. It was hard, but we talked about it, and once I calmed down we could only move forward.”
“They told me you can’t be successful at any level past high school at 300 pounds,” Spellman added. “They told me, ‘Beyond basketball, how do you want to be able to interact with your children, and your children’s children?’ That really hit home for me, because I don’t want to be unhealthy for the rest of my life. It’s something I really took pride in.”
What moving forward meant was a blessing in disguise, and music to the ears of Strength & Conditioning coach John Shackleton, or Shack.
He’d have a full year to work with Spellman without having to worry about the inconvenience of a basketball game.
The key with Spellman came down to discipline. He had no understanding, or desire, to eat well. Gummi bears by the bag. Fried foods. Fast food. “I wasn’t eating because I was hungry,” Spellman said. “It tasted good.”
Shack’s job isn’t just to be the S&C coach. He’s also a nutrition coach, which is different from being a dietician or a nutritionist because his goal wasn’t to simply give Spellman the foods that he needed to be eating. He was teaching him how to be a healthier person. Shack and Spellman would stroll the aisles of Whole Foods, the coach teaching his student what was good for him and why the bad stuff was bad. He would go to restaurants and show Spellman how he could find something on the menu that he enjoyed eating without breaking his diet. He would task Villanova’s grad assistants with going to Sweetgreen — think Chipotle but salads instead of burritos — and have him drop them off at Spellman’s class five minutes before Spellman showed up.
“Everything with him was clockwork,” Shack said. “I knew if he didn’t eat for a while, he’d end up eating some s*** because he’d be starving.”
And when the results started to kick in, that’s when Spellman realized the power of being in shape. “He’s addicted to the grind,” teammate Donte DiVincenzo, himself a redshirt, said. Now, when Spellman goes out to eat on his own, he’ll take pictures of the plates, sending them to Shack — “Is this approved?” — instead of posting them to Instagram.
All told, Spellman lost about 45 pounds while adding muscle, explosiveness and quickness to his game that he never had before.
Paschall’s transformation wasn’t as drastic as Spellman’s.
The 6-foot-6 forward transferred to Villanova from Fordham after his head coach was fired, but he was injured at the end of that year and disenfranchised with where the program was headed.
“I got lazy,” Paschall said, and his weight jumped up close to 270 pounds. He had 16 percent body fat. More than anything, he had let himself go; the dad-bod physique may be what’s trendy these days, but it’s not exactly ideal for a basketball player whose skillset is built around his athleticism.
Like Spellman, Paschall was going to have to sit out a year once he arrived at Villanova, and once again, Shack was able to get his hooks into a player that needed to change his body.
Paschall’s situation was also a little bit different than Spellman’s. The weight came off once he started working out again — he says he’s down to 245 pounds with 6 percent body fat — but his issue was in the mechanics. He never was properly taught the movements he is supposed to make while working out, and that manifested itself in weak stabilizing muscles. “He couldn’t even squat or lunge properly,” but he still had a 40-inch vertical when he showed up to campus.
The plan with Paschall started at the very basic level. He would put the player in front of a mirror so he could see how goofy and awkward he looked doing movements like air-squats or lunges. He put him in a bicram yoga class to help develop his core and strengthen his stabilizers. He helped him perfect the details, and the results have been impressive. Paschall is a physical specimen.
And those transformations have transformed this Villanova team into what they are: A juggernaut that is impossible to matchup with.
They no longer have mismatches, not with their front line down 75 pounds.
“It helps the most on the defensive end, trying to stay in front of guys, blocking shots and moving laterally,” Spellman said of the weight loss. “It just helps all around to not have that weight. It would be like you going to play basketball but before you go out on the court, they put a 45 pound bookbag on you. It just makes it harder.”
Spellman lost weight, but he’s proud of where he has grown: as a person, as a man, as an adult. On a roster full of players more than happy to provide the media with canned responses highlighting all the buzz-words involved with Villanova basketball, Spellman is a breath of fresh air. He’s thoughtful, he’s introspective, he’s open and honest, particularly when he’s discussing himself and his weight loss. He’s taken up poetry in his spare time, and he told ESPN he’s working on writing a novel.
Which is why it’s very easy to believe him when he says things like this:
“It was a blessing in disguise. At the time it was hard for me to understand. It was definitely difficult for me to look at it as a positiive, but coach talked to me about having a great attitude and using our mantra as motivation. I just tried to make the best of it and mature as a person, and it’s definitely helped my game.”
“I had to go through a lot of ups and downs last year to fully understand that this is where I needed to be. If I would have played last year, I wouldn’t have been as meticulous and as disciplined. I would have had an OK year, but I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
And where he is, where Paschall is, now is the reason Villanova is one win away from another national title.