Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Momentum is a fickle thing. It comes and goes without much of a hint of its intentions, sometimes sticking around for a while and sometimes fleeing before it was ever really there.
As a team, Villanova’s momentum came to a crashing stop at the end of the 2013-14 season. A 28-win regular season ended with two losses in its final three games, both in the Big East quarterfinals and the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
A season that began with somewhat mixed expectations–the Wildcats went 20-14 the year before, and would need to rely on a number of young pieces–started off fantastically, with 11 consecutive wins, a Battle 4 Atlantis title, and a top-15 national ranking. Aside from two losses two Creighton and one at top-ranked Syracuse, the Wildcats were able to emerge victorious in every game.
And then, just as people were really starting into the idea of this Villanova team as a national title contender, it was over.
“It’s going to be a tough one to swallow,” sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said after Shabazz Napier’s 25 points powered Connecticut past the Wildcats 77-65 on Saturday afternoon, ending their season. “Looking around this locker room, a lot of guys are upset, I’m upset, nobody wants to lose. We definitely had high aspirations, but what are you going to do?”
As a program, though, Villanova’s momentum seems unlikely to meet such a sudden fate.
Like they did last year, the Wildcats will only lose one starter, senior forward James Bell, the team’s leading scorer (14.5 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (6.1 rpg). Also graduating is Tony Chennault, who averaged about three points in 15 minutes per game.
And while Bell and Chennault’s departure–like Mouphtaou Yarou’s the year before–certainly will leave a hole in production, it’s not one that Jay Wright is incapable of filling.
“Last year, we returned four out of five starters, I think we’ll do the same [this year],” Arcidiacono said. “I think we’ll have a good team next year, but not really looking forward to it yet.”
Freshmen Josh Hart (7.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Kris Jenkins (4.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg) both saw action in all 34 games this season, and their improved play as the season went on bodes well for their Wildcat futures. Both of them stand around 6-foot-5 or 6-6 and will compete to earn some of the minutes left behind by Bell.
Joining in that discussion on the wing will be 6-7 freshman Mikal Bridges, a Great Valley senior who’s a good shooter from out on the wing and can guard a variety of positions as well.
“It doesn’t make it easier, but after all of this kind of settles, it’s just a bright spot that we have,” said Hart, who made the Big East All-Rookie team and seems certain to be a big part of the rotation moving forward. “Everybody coming back, we’re going to be a year older, more experienced, more hungry, and that’s a bright spot to look forward to.”
The question that won’t be as easily answered is whether or not Villanova will be able to survive the loss of two players that were very well-respected in the locker room.
Bell was in many ways the quintessential Villanova player under Wright, improving his numbers each season until he earned All-Big East First Team honors as a senior. Chennault, while a role player in his two years at the school after transferring in from Villanova, was very much an emotional leader of the team, having gone through several hardships in his personal life that only made him a stronger person and a better teammate.
“[James] has taught me so much just as a leader and as a person, on and off the court, same with Tony Chennault, everything he’s been through, and Nick McMahon, they’ve taught us all so much,” Arcidiacono said. “But on the court, James is just our go-to guy, he keeps everyone together, he has the best attitude out there, so it’s going to be tough to leave him, he’s one of our best friends, it’s going to be tough.”
“It’s the way they live, the guys really respect,” Wright said. “[Bell’s] whole career, Tony’s career, Tony’s struggles, they just respect them as men and that’s probably the best way to lead, the way you live your life.”
In the post-game locker room at First Niagara Center was a symbolic passing of the torch. Chennault, McMahon and Bell got dressed with their teammates for the final time, leaving juniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard as the leading men on the Wildcats moving forward.
Next year would seem to be a prime year for making a deep tournament run. Hilliard and Pinkston, the teams’ second and third-leading scorers at 14.3 and 14.1 ppg respectively, will be seniors. Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) will be a three-year starter at PG, and 6-10 big man Daniel Ochefu (5.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) should take a big step forward as a junior.
And the Wildcats’ graduating class of 2015 clearly isn’t going to waste any time.
“Next year it’s going to be me and Darrun, we just have to stay on everybody and push everybody to be the best team that we can be and the best basketball players,” Pinkston said. “Just going to get to it after this, take a day off and then get right back in the gym.”