Does Villanova’s Sharpshooting Star Hold the Key to Another Title?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he knows one way: up
By Matt Foley
For 20 minutes last Saturday, the NCAA Tournament second-round matchup between Villanova and Alabama was hotly contested. Alabama’s lightning-quick point guard, Collin Sexton, bounced across the hardwood, erratically flashing the package of skills that made him the top-rated NBA prospect on the floor.
Then Mikal Bridges took care of business.
With a flurry of mystifying step-back threes, Bridges quickly snuffed out any hopes of a March Madness miracle for the Crimson Tide. What had been a 5-point game at halftime turned into a 81-58 rout as the final buzzer signaled mercy. The Wildcats — who captured the national title in 2016 before losing to Wisconsin in the second round last year — were their usual balanced selves, but it was Bridges who broke open the game after going 0-5 with 1 point in the opening period. He scored the first 5 points of the second half, then added a thunderous alley-oop to put ’Nova up 41-27 — on cruise control. Bridges finished with 23 points on 5-8 shooting from behind the arc, cementing his status as a likely lottery pick in June’s NBA draft.
Coach actually had to tell me that I don’t smile … but it’s just about showing toughness. That’s who we are.
“I give the credit to my coaches and teammates,” Bridges told reporters after trouncing Alabama. “They were on me at halftime, telling me to stay aggressive. That’s what I needed, they kept me confident.”
Bridges is not your typical college superstar. In a season ripe with controversy over the many pitfalls of amateur hoops, the 2018 Big East Tournament Outstanding Player is an illustration of the game’s benefits. A four-star high school recruit, he spent a redshirt freshman year adding muscle (the 6-foot-7 guard entered college at a rail-thin 175 pounds) and then started his career with two single-digit scoring seasons. He was tough and valuable to the team, but far from a star. Now, the sharpshooter averages 18 points per game, defends exceptionally and has surpassed point guard Jalen Brunson as Villanova’s top-rated NBA prospect — the perfect shooting guard for the modern NBA. Because of his high draft status, Bridges will almost certainly turn pro. But first, the redshirt junior is looking to make more improvements — and a second title for his team.
“He continues to grow in every way, skillwise and physically,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright told reporters after the Alabama game. “When you have a tough first half like he did and are able to pick yourself up and carry your team, it’s pretty impressive.”
One of the country’s top teams all season, Villanova (32-4) failed to win the Big East regular season for the first time since the league’s reconfiguration in 2013. Villanova went a respectable 14-4 in conference play, but fellow No. 1 seed Xavier captured its first regular-season Big East crown. “We knew we had a good enough team to [win the league],” Wright said after the Big East Tournament in New York City. “Xavier had a better season than us, flat out. But we kept getting better.”
No one’s arguing that today. Villanova rolled through the conference tournament, knocking off Providence in the title game and solidifying its position as a NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed. Wright’s teams are atypical in the current college game in that they succeed without recruiting “one-and-done” players. Villanova’s up-tempo spread offense and emphasis on defense allow players who may not be the most highly touted out of high school to develop and flourish over time. This year’s team has no seniors, so Bridges, Brunson and fellow junior guard Phil Booth have adopted the role of floor generals. Brunson directs traffic and can fill up the box score, but the balanced team plays so unselfishly that anyone with a hot hand might take over. Lately, Bridges’ shooting hand hasn’t cooled.
Coming out of Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania — 25 miles west of Philadelphia — Bridges was an All-State performer, but Villanova was by far his most prominent scholarship offer (alongside George Washington, St. Joseph’s, Temple and Xavier). He was exactly the type of athlete that Wright looks for: Athletic players who can shoot and will work hard on defense. And Bridges had another trait that has served ’Nova well. “He has a mental maturity that’s rare at this level, and he had that from the start,” says Wright. “He’s always been very humble and coachable.”
Occasionally, Wright has to rile his unflappable star. “Coach actually had to tell me that I don’t smile,” Bridges quipped after Villanova’s Big East Tournament championship. “I had to change that throughout the season, but it’s just about showing toughness. That’s who we are.”
Before the NCAA Tournament, ESPN analyst Jay Williams told reporters that he didn’t “see anyone stopping Villanova from getting to the Elite Eight.” His on-air cohort, ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, concurred, adding that the East Region “lines up well for Villanova to get to the Final Four.” True, but that was before all hell broke loose. Two No. 1 seeds, Xavier and Virginia, lost in the opening weekend, and only seven top-four seeds made the Sweet 16 — the lowest total ever. Bridges’ squad faces what could be its toughest game of the season in a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 5 seed West Virginia. Villanova are 5-point favorites, but Wright’s not counting his chickens. “We haven’t seen anybody that plays like [West Virginia this season],” he said when asked about coach Bob Huggins’ ferocious press defense. “They score at a high rate and that’s what gets them into their press, so your half-court defense has to be good.”
“I think we are going to have to take some hits and hope it doesn’t affect us too much and that we can grind through it,” says Wright. Lucky for him, Villanova’s ascendant star seems to know his way up.