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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Friday / December 15.
  • Mark Few says Villanova deserves the same respect as Kentucky and Duke

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    By DENNIS CHAMBERS & ADAM ZAGORIA

    NEW YORK — Villanova has won as many NCAA championships in the last six years as Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, and UConn.

    During that span, the Wildcats have also won five straight November tournaments, four straight Big East regular-season titles and two Big East Tournament championships.

    But perhaps because they haven’t had a single one-and-done player during that span, Villanova is never perceived to be on the same level as the aforementioned blue bloods.

    After losing to No. 4 Villanova 88-72 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic fueled by Mikal Bridges’ 28 points and 6 rebounds, Gonzaga coach Mark Few said they should be.

    “There’s no question, no question, yes,” Few said. “I think it’s just kind of the way the hierarchy’s been built, it’s almost propaganda in nature and not real.

    “I know in the coaching world, they definitely garner that respect and deserve it. Not only with what their past teams have done, but this particular team is a really, really, really good team and really playing very well and very solid.”

    Instead of serving as a place for players to spend a season before jumping ship to the NBA, Villanova, and head coach Jay Wright build a culture that preaches patience.

    On their current roster, the Wildcats have six players who opted for a redshirt season, three of whom played a big part Tuesday. Omari Spellman (10 points, 10 rebounds) sat out his freshman season for academic purposes. Phil Booth (20 points) took a year off for a medical redshirt after injuring his left knee. And Bridges, Villanova’s best player, took a permanent seat on the bench when he arrived on campus to learn and grow.

    All three of these players, along with the likes of Donte DiVincenzo, took a year to sit and learn in a college culture while the Kentuckys and Dukes piled up the one-and-dones.

    With the run that Villanova has produced over the last five seasons, the reasoning behind the Wildcats’ approach is clear. Wright believes his players are smart enough to make the best decision possible for the team, and themselves.

    “They’re really smart guys,” Wright said. “Nowadays you really don’t convince kids anymore. They’re very well-informed, their parents are well-informed. They try to figure it out. It was really their intelligence, both of them [Booth and Bridges]. They’re different situations and it really does help. They a perspective that’s really unique. They didn’t play, they’re sitting on the bench listening to coaches talk during the game when they’re not really totally in it, and they learn a lot. I think Phil learned a lot intellectually, and I think Mikal just grew physically.”

    Wright isn’t the only who believes this method is positive for the player and the team. Just ask the guys who have experienced it.

    “A year could change your life,” Booth said. “Healthy or not, you’re gonna get better. You still get to practice every day against everybody. You can work on your game more than usual, it’s a very productive year. It’s not easy, but it’s a very productive year. I saw the transformation from when me and Mikal came in together. He sat out that year, and how much better he came in that next year. It helps a lot. I’m not against it by any means.”

    Booth came into Villanova ranked by ESPN as the No. 92 in the class of 2014. Bridges was just a few spots ahead of him at No. 82. Neither projected as big-time difference makers at the high-major level. Yet here they are, shouldering a program that looks poised for another deep run in March.

    “It’s very important,” Bridges said of a redshirt year. “It’s a real good thing because you get to work on your game a lot. More workouts. You get stronger, and you still practice every day. Only thing you’re missing is playing the games. But you’re practicing, getting better, and going against your teammates. I feel like taking the year off and redshirting is a real good thing.”

    Along with using redshirt players, the program has continued its run of consistent dominance by passing down the true qualities of leadership.

    Last season, players like Josh Hart — one of the most decorated college basketball players in recent memory — Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds were seniors who led by example on the Main Line. Being able to spend more than a season with players of that caliber set up the next wave of leadership for Villanova.

    “To replace three guys like that is very hard to do,” Bridges said. “It’s not easy. They did so much for us. I learned so much from them three. We don’t try to pay attention to the ranking. We gotta find a way to get better and be the best team we can be. Those three were tremendous when they were here. That was a great experience to learn from them how to be a great team.”

    For Booth, Bridges, and junior point guard Jalen Brunson, Wright has another group of upperclassmen who could lead Villanova into national championship contention yet again.

    “You get to a game like this to see where you are,” Wright said. “The way Jalen, Phil, and Mikal handled everything going into this game. Like Jalen getting himself into foul trouble, and really playing hard and unselfishly, that’s leadership. I’m really excited about the leadership of these three.”

    Villanova doesn’t get the same love as Kentucky and Duke. But maybe it’s time that changed.

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