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Villanova has earned the right to be a national championship contender once again

The Wildcats are the No. 2 team in our countdown.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Villanova vs North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Where do you start with Villanova’s flawless run through the NCAA tournament? There was the record-setting offensive efficiency and the gaudy point differential. There was the inspired play of senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who hit 71 percent of his twos and 62 percent of his threes on his way to being named Most Outstanding Player. And then there’s the shot by Kris Jenkins, one of the most iconic in the sport’s long history, and the instant-classic reactions it caused both stunned and subdued.

Villanova’s run was so thoroughly dominant and ended on such a picture-perfect note that it’s fair to wonder how any team could follow it. Arcidiacono is gone, as is interior anchor Daniel Ochefu, but many of last year’s critical cogs remain. Quietly, Villanova has won more games than any program in the country over the last three years.

There’s a real chance for a sequel here, because this is again one of America’s truly elite teams.

Villanova knew it had a puncher’s chance at a repeat the moment Josh Hart pulled his name out of the NBA draft. The rugged senior year sets the tone for the Wildcats on both ends, providing an essential component of slashing on offense while serving as a premier perimeter defender.

Jenkins is the other headline name here after his historic buzzer-beater last April. What Jenkins lacks in size (6’6, 240 pounds) at power forward, he more than makes up for with shooting. He’s the team’s best three-point marksman, making 38.6 percent of 259 attempts from deep last season. Wright will need him to improve as a rebounder without Ochefu around.

The tall task of replacing Arcidiacono falls in the capable hands of Jalen Brunson. Brunson was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school and started all but one game for the national title winner as a freshman. Brunson was always a better fit on the ball, and he’ll get that chance now. He gives Villanova a heady floor general with a nice shooting stroke (38.3 percent from three) and developing playmaking instincts. His 19.1 assist rate last season was second on the team behind Arcidiacono.

Villanova can expect a big leap from Mikal Bridges, the hyper athletic, versatile defensive weapon who broke out in last season’s tournament. They will need a similar step up from Darryl Reynolds, the 6’10 senior who replaces Ochefu in the middle. Eric Paschall should also provide support inside as a transfer. The 6'7, 250-pound bull averaged 15.9 points per game in his one season at Fordham.

No team has repeated since Al Horford and Joakim Noah did it at Florida in 2006 and 2007. Villanova’s road will not be easy, especially with a superpowered Duke team, experienced squads from Kansas and Oregon and another great freshman class at Kentucky. This team has enough talent to be in that conversation, though. After watching how Villanova played last spring, there’s no reason to ever doubt them again.

Projected lineup

PG Jalen Brunson, sophomore
SG Phil Booth, junior
SF Josh Hart, senior
PF Kris Jenkins, senior
C Darryl Reynolds, senior

Key reserves: F Mikal Bridges (RS sophomore), F Eric Paschall (RS sophomore), C Dylan Painter (freshman), G Donte DiVincenzo (sophomore)

How Villanova can succeed: By returning so many pieces from a national title winner

When Duke won the national title in 2015, its four best players immediately departed for the NBA. UConn had to replace star point guard Shabazz Napier after winning it all in 2014, while Kentucky had to replace almost everyone after Anthony Davis led a dominant run to the national championship in 2012.

In the one-and-done era, it’s exceedingly rare for a national title winner to bring back as many key contributors as Villanova will this season. We know Villanova can win the national championship because we’ve already seen them do it. That experience and continuity can’t be discounted at the onset of a new season.

In Hart, Jenkins, Brunson, Booth, Bridges, and Reynolds, Villanova brings back five players who appeared in all 40 games and played at least 42 percent of the available minutes last season. Hart finished fifth in KenPom’s national Player of the Year race, Jenkins had a team-best 120.5 offensive rating and Brunson seems poised to become of the country’s top point guards as a sophomore. There’s a lot to like here.

There’s also the potential for Bridges to take another leap. Currently projected as the No. 16 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft by DraftExpress, Bridges has the raw tools to be Villanova’s best long-term prospect. His length (7’1 wingspan), foot speed, and defensive versatility makes him a weapon right now. If his jump shot comes around, Wright will have a hard time keeping him off the floor.

How the Wildcats could go home early: An inability to replace Ochefu inside

Daniel Ochefu was really good, and college basketball fans didn’t need to wait until he made the Washington Wizards as an undrafted free agent to know that. Ochefu was a rarity at the college level: a strong, 7-foot center who could lock down the paint defensively and provide the offense with supplemental scoring.

There’s really no one on this year’s roster who has proven they can fill that void.

The loss of freshman big man Omari Spellman hurts for Villanova. Spellman is one of the program’s most-touted recruits ever, set to provide the offense with interior scoring from day one. He was ruled academically ineligible in September because of a bizarre situation that essentially amounted to him taking too long to complete his core classes in high school. Villanova fans are not thrilled about this:

Reynolds did play small but valuable role on last year’s team, so perhaps he’ll come into his own as a senior. Paschall is undersized but he makes up for it with strength. Freshman big Dylan Painter could also get a look with Spellman out for the year. Another option is moving Jenkins to the five and simply trying to blitz teams with offensive firepower. Wright will figure out something.

There are rosters with more NBA talent and more depth, but there’s still much to like about Villanova. It’s a team that will play smart, play tough and is blessed with the experience it accrued last season. More than anything, Villanova earned this lofty No. 2 ranking while others are benefiting from projections. As we saw last year, this isn’t a program you want to bet against.