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Physical transformation of Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall has Villanova on brink of title

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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.

He’s not.

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.


(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

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.

WATCH: No. 16 Louisville avoids late disaster, beats Clemson 56-55

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Christen Cunningham scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half to rally No. 16 Louisville, which hung on for a 56-55 victory over Clemson on Saturday.

The Cardinals (18-8, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) led 56-49 with 17 seconds left after a free throw by Steven Enoch but then nearly lost a third straight in disastrous fashion. Louisville saw a 23-point second-half lead evaporate against No. 2 Duke on Tuesday.

A turnover and a held ball in the Tigers end led to a pair of 3-pointers by Marcquise Reed, the latter making it a one-point game with 3 seconds left. Louisville’s Jordan Nwora tried to inbound the ball, but Reed got the steal. Nwora redeemed himself by blocking Reed’s shot, and Clemson could not get off another shot before time ran out.

Cunningham hit 5 of 7 shots in the second half to help Louisville come back from a seven-point deficit.

Louisville was held to a season-low 19 first-half points thanks to shooting a season-worst 29.6 percent in the half. While Clemson wasn’t much better at 37 percent, the Tigers took a four-point lead at the break thanks to a 3-pointer just before the buzzer by Clyde Trapp.

Elijah Thomas led the Tigers (15-10, 5-7) with 15 points. Reed had 13 points and 12 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Clemson: The Tigers dictated play with their physicality inside and defense. Clemson held the Cardinals to season-low 35.2-percent shooting and held Louisville to just three offensive boards. They could keep it up for a full 40 minutes, but their defense gave them a chance for an upset.

Louisville: After losing three of their previous four, the Cardinals looked anything but great on Saturday. The Cardinals’ play in the closing seconds was reminiscent of how they wrapped up the Duke game on Tuesday and is something coach Chris Mack needs to address immediately.

Johnson, No. 8 North Carolina roll past Wake Forest 95-57

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Cameron Johnson scored 27 points, and eighth-ranked North Carolina scored the game’s first 18 points in Saturday’s 95-57 win over Wake Forest.

Freshman Coby White added 10 points, five rebounds and six assists for the Tar Heels (20-5, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who dominated from the tip following their first loss in a month.

The Tar Heels, who lost to fourth-ranked Virginia on Monday, ran out to leads of 18-0, 25-3 and 35-7. They shot 74 percent in the opening half and finished at 62 percent while making 16 of 25 3-pointers, with Johnson making his first eight shots and six from behind the arc.

Freshman Jaylen Hoard scored 17 points in an ugly afternoon for the Demon Deacons (9-15, 2-10), who suffered their most lopsided loss in three decades at Joel Coliseum.

Wake Forest shot 33 percent.

BIG PICTURE

UNC: The Tar Heels got anything they wanted to start a game that resembled more of a November tuneup than a February league date. Johnson led that effort by making 10 of 13 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers. Still, there was at least one apparent concern: the health of freshman reserve Nassir Little. He was a gametime decision after rolling his right ankle early against Virginia and felt good enough to play 11 first-half minutes, but he wasn’t on the bench after halftime.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons found reason for hope with a Jan. 15 win against then-No. 17 North Carolina State, but they had won just once since with five losses coming by at least 16 points. Things began badly Saturday when Hoard didn’t start after arriving late for a pregame shootaround. And they got no better, most notably with leading scorer Brandon Childress (15.1 points) going scoreless on 0-for-12 shooting with six turnovers.

No. 6 Michigan starts fast, beats No. 24 Maryland 65-52

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Charles Matthews scored 14 points and Iggy Brazdeikis added 13 to lift No. 6 Michigan to a 65-52 victory over No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

The Wolverines (23-3, 12-3 Big Ten) rebounded from their loss at Penn State earlier in the week. Michigan raced out to a 14-2 advantage and led by as much as 15 in the first half. It was a struggle for the Wolverines after that, but the fast start was too much for Maryland (19-7, 10-5) to overcome.

Bruno Fernando scored all 12 of his points in the second half for the Terrapins.

Michigan led 27-18 at halftime. Maryland turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. The Terps had only three turnovers in the second, but the damage was done.

With Maryland down five, Anthony Cowan Jr. had a chance to cut further into the lead, but he missed an easy layup, and Brazdeikis made a 3-pointer at the other end to make it 50-42.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins are 6-3 when trailing at halftime this season, including 5-2 in Big Ten games. But that’s a tough trend to rely on against good teams on the road. Fernando was impressive early in the second half, but that wasn’t enough, and Maryland missed a bunch of 3-pointers toward the end.

Michigan: This was a crucial win for the Wolverines in their chase for the Big Ten title. Michigan still has two games left against Michigan State and a rematch at Maryland. When the Wolverines defend like this, they can win in spite of poor outside shooting, but their 7-for-26 showing from 3-point range Saturday leaves plenty of room for improvement.

WATCH LIVE: Triple-header of A-10 action highlighted by VCU-Dayton

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There is a triple-header of Atlantic 10 games on NBCSN on Saturday afternoon, capped by one of the best games of the day.

It starts with George Washington paying a visit to Duquesne at noon and is following by Fordham taking on Rhode Island at 2:00 p.m., but the highlight of the day is VCU’s trip to Dayton at 4:00 p.m., a game that has very real Atlantic 10 title and bubble implications.

VCU is currently sitting just a half-game out of first place in the conference, one win off of Davidson’s pace, and they are playing for a shot at getting an at-large bid as well. A win at Dayton would be a very, very nice win for the Rams resume, and it would also keep them on pace to win the league title. Dayton is just a game out of first place themselves, and they happen to have one of the very best home court environments in the country.

Here is the full schedule:

GEORGE WASHINGTON at DUQUESNE, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
FORDHAM at RHODE ISLAND, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
VCU at DAYTON, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)

Bubble Banter: All of the weekend’s bubble action in one spot

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There is not just under a month left in conference play, so it is time for us to go all-in on the “who’s-in-who’s-out” discussion. Bubble Banter has never been more important!

Some quick housekeeping before we dive into it:

  • This page will be updated throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as the games get played. 
  • We’ll update them best that we can, but the NET rankings will be accurate through Friday morning. 
  • If you see something we missed, if you have an issue with a team we left out or if you want to congratulate us on a job well done, drop a comment below or hit us up here: @RobDauster.
  • The cut-off we will be using this year for teams that are “on the bubble” is the No. 9 seed line. If your favorite team is seeded as a No. 9 or better in our most recent bracket, they will not be discussed below. This does not mean that those teams are locks, but it means they need to do something dumb before they are in danger of missing out on the tournament. 
  • On Thursday, our Dave Ommen released an updated bracket, and these eight teams were placed in an 8-9 game: Buffalo, Alabama, Baylor, Syracuse, St. John’s, Auburn, Washington and TCU.

Onto the weekend’s action.

WINNERS

OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 12): The Sooners finally snapped a five-game losing streak by going into Fort Worth and picking off TCU, 71-62. I still think that the Sooners are in a tough spot as it stands, but they now how four Q1 wins and just one loss to a team outside the top 35 in the NET — at West Virginia (115), a Q2 loss. A 4-8 mark against Q1 is not great, and neither is their 16-10 record or 4-9 mark in the Big 12, but OU does have three more shots at Q1 wins, and that doesn’t count Texas at home. Their bid is in their hands.

TEXAS (NET: 35, SOS: 6): The Longhorns did what they needed to do on Saturday, knocking off Oklahoma State in Austin to avoid picking up their second Q3 loss of the year. The Longhorns are now 15-11 overall and just 7-6 in the Big 12, but they have the No. 6 SOS and No. 11 non-conference SOS nationally. Combine that with a neutral court win over UNC (9), home wins over Purdue (11) and Kansas (18) and a win at Kansas State (26), and the Longhorns are in a pretty good spot.

LOSERS

CLEMSON (NET: 42, SOS: 33): The Tigers had a shot to land their second Q1 win of the season, but after erasing and eight point lead in the final minute and forcing a turnover with 3.5 seconds left, the Tigers had a layup blocked with that would have won the game. The result doesn’t really hurt their profile other than the opportunity cost — this is the kind of win that, on this year’s bubble, can jump Clemson up four or five spots in the seed list. That’s a tough miss.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

BAYLOR (NET: 32, SOS: 53) at No. 15 Texas Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
INDIANA (NET: 49, SOS: 36) at MINNESOTA (NET: 58, SOS: 62), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
FLORIDA (NET: 42, SOS: 43) at ALABAMA (NET: 44, SOS: 19), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
VCU (NET: 43, SOS: 41) at Dayton, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
UTAH STATE (NET: 38, SOS: 126) at Air Force, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
LIPSCOMB (NET: 30, SOS: 188) at Kennesaw State, Sat. 4:30 p.m.
N.C. STATE (NET: 37, SOS: 239) at No. 2 Duke, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Memphis at UCF (NET: 45, SOS: 83), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
TEMPLE (NET: 55, SOS: 58) at South Florida, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191) at WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167), Sat. 7:00 p.m. (ESPN+)
DePaul at BUTLER (NET: 53, SOS: 25), Sat. 8:00 p.m. (FS1)
Northwestern at NEBRASKA (NET: 40, SOS: 70), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166) at Tennessee Tech, Sat. 8:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
Mississippi State at ARKANSAS (NET: 63, SOS: 45), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (SECNET)
ARIZONA STATE (NET: 72, SOS: 67) at Utah, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (FS1)
SETON HALL (NET: 69, SOS: 39) at CREIGHTON (NET: 57, SOS: 16), Sun. 3:00 p.m. (FS1)