Mikal Bridges found himself in an unfamiliar situation as the second half of Villanova’s Elite Eight slugfest against Kansas ticked away. For once, he wasn’t leaving the floor.
Bridges played all but 99 seconds of the final 16:49 and responded by being everywhere seemingly all at once. With under five minutes left, he put Villanova up four by darting in from the weakside to tip in an offensive rebound as he fell to the ground in one motion. With under three minutes left, he anticipated a low post feed to Perry Ellis and jumped into the passing lanes like an oversized NFL cornerback.
Bridges finished with only six points and three rebounds, but his presence was undeniable. He defended every weapon in the Jayhawks’ armada, from the interior scoring of Ellis to slashing wing Wayne Selden Jr. and both members of Kansas’ dynamic two-point guard attack. It manifested in two game-sealing steals in the final 34 seconds to push Villanova to the Final Four berth that had eluded them the previous two seasons. You know how the story ends.
Bridges made his mark last season on the defensive end, smothering every assignment thrown his way. After showcasing that versatility against the Jayhawks, he helped hold Buddy Hield to just nine points during a 44-point Villanova win in the Final Four. Now he’s ready to take the next step.
It wasn’t easy for Bridges to fold the long limbs in his 6’7 frame into a spot on the bench, but after graduating from Great Valley High School in 2014 he got used to being patient. The Main Line, Pennsylvania, native waited for his dream school to offer him a scholarship after a breakout junior season. He waited a year to make his college debut when Jay Wright redshirted him as a freshman. He then waited on the bench as a more experienced and cohesive group made the Wildcats one of the best teams in the country last season.
“When you come off the bench you want to be the energy guy,” Bridges told SB Nation. “I know what I have to do. Villanova basketball is a part of me now. There's no time to be on the court and not play hard.”
Bridges has spent his entire career fitting in. Last season, that meant accepting being the seventh or eighth man in the rotation with limited offensive responsibility. In that role, he turned in one of the best per-minute seasons for a freshman in the last six years. Now on the brink of his third year in college as a redshirt sophomore, Bridges is finally ready to break out.
It wasn’t long ago that Great Valley coach Jim Nolan had to call up local colleges and beg them to take a look at Bridges. What changed since then? You can start with a four-inch growth spurt as Bridges entered his junior year.
Great Valley went 28-4 — the best season in school history — and Bridges averaged 19.5 points and 11 rebounds per game. He carried that momentum over into the grassroots season, where he played with Team Final alongside a host of other high-major recruits, like Miami’s Ja’Quan Newton, Penn State’s Shep Garner and Michigan’s Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
With so many talented teammates, college coaches flocked to see Team Final. Inevitably, they came away most impressed with Bridges. There was a game at the Peach Jam against Houston Hoops, a team that started three McDonald’s All-Americans in Justise Winslow, Kelly Oubre and North Carolina’s Justin Jackson.
“It was one of those games we weren’t supposed to win but won,” head coach Derrick Bobbit told SB Nation. “He played as well or better than all of those guys. That was a very special game.”
The added exposure made Bridges a commodity, if not exactly an elite prospect. He cracked Rivals’ top 100 at No. 95, and ESPN’s at No. 82.
“At the end of the year, all the schools I called called back and said, oh we're really interested,” Nolan said. “Next thing you know he had over 20 offers.”
There was only one offer Bridges really wanted, and that was from Villanova. He called it his “dream school” the day he committed. Little did he know he’d have to wait even longer for his turn to play. With a deep veteran roster ahead of him, Wright decided to give Bridges a redshirt year to add strength.
“It was hard,” Bridges said. “I'm young for my grade and I knew it would get me ready for the next year. I think it was really beneficial and got me to the point I'm at right now. I'm still getting better every day.”
In between a national championship parade, a visit to the White House and an exhibition tour in Spain, Bridges has been putting in work at Villanova all summer. He’s still trying to add strength to his 191-pound frame. He’s also working to become a better shooter. Last season, Bridges made 30 percent of the 77 three-pointers he attempted. If he wants to be more than a defensive stopper, he knows his jumper needs to improve.
When Bridges was on the floor last season, Villanova was a different team. According to BPM (Box Plus/Minus), Bridges just had the 13th-best season for a freshman since 2010-11. Nine of those players were selected in the lottery. Only Ben Simmons had a bigger effect on plus-minus than Bridges among last season’s freshmen.
Bridges credits Villanova’s upperclassmen and the culture of the program for putting him in a position to succeed last year. With Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating, Bridges knows it’s his job to carry the ethos of Villanova basketball forward.
“There were a lot of teaching moments,” Bridges said about his freshman year. “They were pushing me every day. Even if it's just shootaround -- they always made sure I was taking it serious.”
Finally, the wait is over for Bridges. If the early results are any indication, that should mean more big things for Villanova.