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With Villanova, starters are only beginning of trouble for foes

There are all sorts of reasons Villanova started 2016-17 ranked fourth in the country, already poised to move up. You know the reasons by name. We're just going to give it one name.

There are all sorts of reasons Villanova started 2016-17 ranked fourth in the country, already poised to move up. You know the reasons by name. We're just going to give it one name.

Mikal Bridges.

Not saying Bridges is Villanova's top guy. That's not the point. Just that the list of other NCAA rosters that wouldn't include a Mikal Bridges as a starter might begin and end with Duke, which is why the Blue Devils start out No. 1.

The last time Villanova played a team officially ranked No. 1, it was Kansas in last season's Elite Eight, and No. 1 went down, and Mikal Bridges was a massive reason. The Jayhawks just couldn't find a way to deal with his blend of length and athleticism at Villanova's defensive end. Bridges' five steals proved decisive, which puts that performance way up the list of reasons the Pavilion has another championship banner.

So this season begins and here is this difference-maker off Villanova's bench again. It makes sense, the only way Villanova can smartly play it, mainly because 'Nova goes first-team all-American and unanimous first-team all-Big East at the starting forward spots. Obviously, it's nice to start with a player of the caliber of Josh Hart, but teams with first-team all-Americans began this season ranked first, fourth, fifth, 25th, and 29th, so one player is only a beginning.

In Friday's season-opening 88-48 takeout of Lafayette, Bridges was in the game after 177 seconds. Was this because Jay Wright didn't like something he saw on the court? Hardly. Bridges isn't Villanova's sixth man. He's the sixth starter.

I remember asking Wright about Bridges last December. When exactly did Wright know he was going to use this guy from Great Valley High at the top of 'Nova's three-quarter-court zone pressure? The day he committed, Wright said. Those long arms are literally the first line of defense. How many other 6-7 guys had a dozen games with multiple steals in their first college season while averaging 20 minutes on the court?

Against Lafayette, Bridges had 16 points, led Villanova with eight rebounds, led with three offensive boards, and hit 2 of 4 three-pointers. He also led 'Nova with four assists. His points, rebounds, and assists all were career highs.

Wright has been in this enviable position often before, with a player ready to start but coming off the bench because of the rotation logistics. Phil Booth was kind of in that position last season. What were Wright's conversations like with Bridges before this season?

"The same,'' Wright said. "Kris [Jenkins] and Josh did it. Who else did it? . . . "

Kyle Lowry, for one - for one year.

"Yeah, we've had a lot of guys in that position,'' Wright said. "They've had a lot of success. Mikal has watched it all, even before he got here. . . . As soon as I told him, I said, 'You're playing starter minutes.' He gets it. He's smart, and he's really humble. He's going to be in the game a lot, and when the game's on the line, a lot."

Part of the calculus is knowing for how long it can work. Lowry, for one season, no way for two, which is why Villanova had its alleged four-guard lineup when Lowry was a sophomore, with Lowry, Mike Nardi, Randy Foye, and Allan Ray. That usually lasted to about the first whistle, when one typically came out and a forward came in.

Once the subbing begins at 'Nova, it doesn't matter. Wright has an eight-man main rotation and the minutes are distributed closely depending on matchups. Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo also come off the bench and combined Friday for 14 points and 14 rebounds in 48 minutes in different roles.

Bridges said the conversation about role was about how the sixth man plays starter minutes, "to do the same thing I did last year, come out, play hard, this time be more aggressive, but be more solid, because I was going to be out there longer than I was last year. Nothing wrong with that. I love it. It doesn't matter if I'm starting or coming off the bench."

"Last year I would just go out there and be wild,'' Bridges added. He kept using the word solid, whether it's for five minutes, two minutes, whatever the stretch is.

Friday, Bridges got back out there with 1:40 left in the first half after a two-minute rest. Lafayette was shooting a free throw. It was a miss, Bridges grabbed the ball, and was fouled. A productive statistical second with a rebound and two points. A couple of possessions later, Bridges picked a Lafayette pocket and went in for a layup. So a 78-second span produced four points, a rebound, and a steal. His first-half line was 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including a make on the only three-pointer he took, plus eight rebounds, three assists, and two steals, in 10 minutes.

What does all it really add up to? A top-five national ranking. The math is simple.