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Villanova starting over, but big NCAA Tournament goals remain

Expectations on the Main Line are high as usual, although the Wildcats' talented and deep lineup faces a tough schedule.

Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright discusses a play in practice with freshman Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree.
Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright discusses a play in practice with freshman Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree.Read moreClem Murray/Staff Photographer

A year ago, Jay Wright had to say goodbye to four-year starter Ryan Arcidiacono and big man Daniel Ochefu, from a Villanova team that cut down the final nets.

The Wildcats still went 32-4.

Now, they have to start over without Josh Hart, who was taken late in the first round of the NBA draft by the Lakers; Kris Jenkins, who made the shot that got them their rings; and Darryl Reynolds, who succeeded Ochefu.

But that's why it's called a program. The pieces change, or take on other roles, yet things mostly keep on going. And that's what should continue happening on the Main Line.

These Wildcats will start somewhere in the Top 10. They've been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament each of the past four seasons. Maybe this time they'll only be a 3 or 4. But would you bet against them?

"Nothing changes, no matter what," said junior guard Jalen Brunson, the preseason pick for Big East Player of the Year. "As long as we're keeping the culture we don't expect it to be different, no matter who's here."

They've won all four regular-season titles since the conference was reconfigured. And two of the postseason tourneys. So it's not shocking that they're the choice to finish first.

"I think this team has a lot of room for improvement," Wright said. "Which means we'll probably make some mistakes early. Yet the expectations are the same. I worry about that, I really do. We have to go out and prove it. I'd be lying to you if I said everybody just steps up. It's hard to do that. But I think they can.

"Our juniors haven't lost here. I don't know if they've ever lost back-to-back games. It could happen. Our schedule's tough, and we don't play any games at the Pavilion (which is being renovated). If it does it's not the end of the world. I hope we don't. But they've never experienced that before.

"That's going to be one of our challenges."

The Wildcats actually haven't lost two straight since the last two games of the 2012-13 season. They've lost 17 times since then. And even though three of the last four seasons have ended with second-round losses in the Madness, the three-week run in 2016 more than makes up for that.

It's a trade any program would make. Even the Kentuckys of the food chain. If they'd lost to say Kansas in the Elite Eight instead of winning it all, many people might not be so understanding. But the reality is they didn't. And it remains the ultimate trump card, even if does have a certain shelf life.

Anyway, they don't have any seniors. But Brunson, who should only expand his game, has acted like a senior since he arrived. Much like Arch. And they have three fourth-year juniors: Swingman Mikal Bridges, who's an NBA prospect; Phil Booth, who had a team-high 20 points in the final win over North Carolina before missing most of last season with knee issues that appear to be behind him; and forward Eric Paschall, who was the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 2014-15 at Fordham before he transferred.

In addition, 6-foot, 9-inch Omari Spellman is finally available after missing last season due to an NCAA academic ruling. His upside seems enormous. And redshirt sophomore Donte DiVincenzo has shown moments of star potential.

Plus there's depth, something they didn't have enough of last season.

"It feels great to fulfill my dream of playing at the college level," said Spellman, who's shed 35 pounds. "I want to showcase what I can do.

"I don't know about the expectations, if there is. I don't pay attention to it. All I can do is play as hard as I can. It killed me knowing those guys were going to war and I couldn't do anything except help them prepare in practice.

"I felt like I was letting them down. You have to move past that."

Added Booth: "Being on the sidelines gave me another perspective. It's something I wouldn't want to do again. We'll probably be more hungry, to be honest. It's a new team. It's always about seeing how much better can we get. There's a lot of leadership.

"We can't think about the end of the season. We have a lot ahead of us before we even get to March. Right now Columbia's on our mind."

The opener will be Nov. 10 in South Philly, where they'll play a dozen times instead of the usual handful. It might not matter. We'll start finding out soon enough.

"I think the national title has worn off," Wright said. "It seems like business as usual around here, and everywhere else. It was good last year, too. This team could be looked at as a failure, if we don't get to a certain point.

"But that's part of being a successful program."

See you on Selection Sunday. And maybe well beyond.