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Omari Spellman's 1st half with Villanova was forgettable, but that soon changed

Villanova's first-year center showed what he brings - in the second half.

Villanova forward Omari Spellman passes the basketball past Columbia forward Lukas Meisner (right) and guard Mike Smith during the second-half on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Philadelphia.
Villanova forward Omari Spellman passes the basketball past Columbia forward Lukas Meisner (right) and guard Mike Smith during the second-half on Friday, November 10, 2017 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Omari Spellman will remember the first half of his first college game for being … pretty much unmemorable.

Starting at center for Villanova against Columbia on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center, Spellman did nothing embarrassing. There was no tripping over his own feet. He just didn't do enough of anything. Just kind of out there.

Which meant this much-heralded five-star recruit, ready to go after being forced to sit as a freshman, in the best shape of his life — 37 pounds lighter now, he'll tell you — gets to remember the first halftime of his college career as the time Wildcats coach Jay Wright lit into him.

Spellman spoke of nerves and being too tentative. Chasing Columbia players around was not an easy test. Without prompting, Spellman spelled it out further. "My lack of effort,'' he said after Villanova had finished off the Ivy Leaguers, 75-60. "Coach talked to me about my lack of effort."

Sometimes the stat sheet does tell the story. Spellman's first half: 10 minutes, 2 points, 4 shots, 1 basket, 2 rebounds (1 offensive, 1 defensive), 1 turnover. Not close enough to the action to even pick up a personal foul.

Second half: 13 minutes, 9 points, 7 shots, 9 rebounds (5 offensive, 4 defensive) an assist, no turnovers, 1 foul.

For a little second-half stretch, hitting the offensive boards, finding teammates, Spellman was the dominant player on the floor. (When Villanova gets going, each guy out there tends to have a flurry like that.)

The new 6-foot-9 starter does not act as if he has all the answers, and he will definitely answer some Villanova questions. He talks about how his teammates kept supporting him, and the veterans also stayed on him, especially about defensive positioning, turning his head, staying alert on cuts. How did Spellman grade himself defensively?

"Poor,'' Spellman said. "I've got to be better for my teammates. I'll figure it out. I've just got to get more experience and get more reps. I've got to be a lot better on ball screens, I've got to be a lot more locked in. A lot of the things that I messed up on, I just wasn't locked in. … Just keeping a butt to the baseline."

Out on the court, Eric Paschall had gotten on Spellman after one play about exactly that.

"Just stay in your stance,'' Paschall said. "Coach preaches stance stamina and just talking."

Think of last season as a kind of basketball boot camp for Spellman, all aspects.

"He understands college basketball now,'' Wright had said the day before. "He's been around it for a year, he's watched games, he's practiced. Last year, he was a wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights freshman."

Villanova could have used his minutes last season.

"Definitely,'' Wright said. "Definitely. He is probably now where he would have been last year halfway through the season."

Spellman has four years of eligibility, but the NCAA ruled he had to sit out last year as an academic redshirt after he had started ninth grade at a public school but transferred to a private school, then reclassified as an eighth-grader.

So because the NCAA viewed Spellman as spending five years in high school, they want him to spend five years in college.

He came in freshman year at 287, he said, and now is 250 pounds. How?

"John Shackleton,'' Spellman said. "Two words, John Shackleton. That's all I can say."

Shackleton is Villanova's strength coach and nutritional guru. Kris Jenkins, in particular, gave him great credit in recent years for reshaping his body.

"I never want to go back to where I was — ever,'' Spellman said. "I lived unhealthy. I'm just working toward becoming a complete person and human being, and that involves my fitness and health. I never want to go back to where I was."

So does he find himself eating things he never thought he would eat?

"Quinoa, spinach, a lot of things like that,'' Spellman said.

Where does it translate on the floor right now?

"It's more about just conditioning,'' Spellman said. "Imagine if you were how you are right now and I put a 37-pound weight on you and said, 'Just run.' It's a lot different. It helped me in a lot of areas. It helped me in my confidence as a person."

Wright's halftime words for Spellman were replaced by some praise for his basketball IQ.

"In the second half, he really hadn't had a lot of touches,'' Wright said. "We got it into him. He got into a little trap. He kicked it out opposite. That's rare for a young kid."

The 10,504 Villanova fans at Wells Fargo saw the new big man find teammate Mikal Bridges for a driving slam dunk. It was the happiest they saw Spellman all night even if the highlight came after his portion of the play. Or maybe, thinking big picture, that reaction goes down as the highlight of the play.