#12 Villanova by Russell Steinberg

Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova has gone 62-8 over the last two years, but that’s not what Wildcats fans remember when they think of recent Villanova history. They remember the two straight early exits from the NCAA Tournament, one to 7 seed UConn and the other to 8 seed NC State, both in the Round of 32.

Is this the year that Villanova breaks through and matches Final Four talent with a trip to the Final Four in Houston?

It’s certainly possible. Villanova comes into the year as the clear Big East favorite with an intriguing blend of youth and experience. The Wildcats are led by seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, with five-star freshman Jalen Brunson as the most talked-about newcomer to hit Villanova in some time.

Talent-wise, it’s almost enough to make you forget that the Wildcats lose three key contributors from last year: JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard both graduated, while Dylan Ennis transferred to Oregon.

Jay Wright has always loved using a guard-heavy lineup and this year should be no different. Arcidiacono and Josh Hart return as the known commodities after each averaged 10.1 points per game last year. The Wildcats also will try and get even more out of Phil Booth in 2015-16. Booth came off the bench last season and was about as efficient as a bench player could be. He made 65 percent of his two-point attempts and 49 percent from three, giving him the second-best effective field goal percentage on the team at 69 percent. He's a potential starter or another quality guard off the bench.

If Booth isn’t the starting point guard on day one, it will be the team’s superstar freshman, who might end up being the best player on the team. The McDonald's All-American Brunson comes to Villanova loaded with potential. He’s smart. He’s explosive. He’s a scorer. And even as a freshman, he is experienced. Brunson spent the summer leading the U-19 national team to a gold medal in Greece. In the United States’ overtime title game win over Croatia, Brunson scored 14 points and had seven assists. Most impressively, he did not turn the ball over in more than 40 minutes played.

He might be the missing piece that the Wildcats have been looking for and could take Booth’s starting spot if Wright elects to go with pure talent over familiarity.

While the Wildcats will again be a backcourt-loaded team, Ochefu returns as probably the only true big man in the starting lineup. He also might be one of the best rebounders in the country. Ochefu ranked eighth in the nation last year in defensive rebound percentage (28.1) and 27th in offensive rebound percentage (14.0). Villanova lacks real frontcourt depth, so Ochefu’s role will be vital, unless Darryl Reynolds made significant strides over the offseason.

For more on Villanova, check out VU Hoops' big, beautiful season preview.

How the Wildcats can succeed: Brunson shines and Arcidiacono finds consistency

Villanova fans love that Brunson is coming in as a proven winner who could potentially take over close games late. Though the Wildcats are loaded with talent, they don’t exactly have much star power, so Brunson’s late-game role could be huge. As a bonus, if he is the de facto go-to option when Villanova needs offense, it should free up Arcidiacono, Hart or Booth. With so many guards who can score, Villanova will be a tough team to guard in any scenario.

Brunson would be helped greatly by a consistent performance from the senior Arcidiacono. His ability is never questioned — he had five 18-plus-point scoring games last year and nine games in which he buried at least three threes. But then we saw the other side, when he suddenly went quiet. There were eight games last year when he scored four points or less, including the season-ending loss to NC State.

With Brunson coming in, Wright does not need Arcidiacono to do it all. He can play off the ball more and doesn’t have to be the leading scorer every night. But he does need to be the reliable spark that won’t get down on himself every time he goes through a mini-slump. If he can do that, he might be in for a huge senior year.

How Villanova can go home early: Lack of depth in the frontcourt becomes a glaring weakness

As important as the guards are, Villanova’s success this year might hinge on how effective the frontcourt is without Pinkston. It’s not Pinkston’s 10 points per game that the Wildcats will miss most, it’s his defense and rebounding.

Recall that block against Michigan last year to clinch a game early in the season. Ochefu will be an important piece, but he can’t do it all himself, and Jenkins is really more of a wing than a 4-man. The junior Reynolds, whose playing time decreased as last year went on, will come off the bench and will need to step up his game. In limited action so far, he has proven capable of blocking shots and occasionally picking up a basket or two.

It sounds like redshirt Mikal Bridges, who came in as more of a wing, is capable of playing the four as well. After sitting out a year, he might see significant minutes alongside Ochefu against bigger teams. Then there’s Tim Delaney, a three-star forward who, along with guard Donte DiVincenzo, comes to Villanova as an overlooked freshman in the same class as Brunson. Delaney underwent hip surgery earlier in the month and is out indefinitely, so even if he can play this year, you can't go into the season counting on him for production.

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