If there was any doubt that Villanova had arrived at blueblood status, it was erased this week.
On Tuesday, guard Donte DiVincenzo kept his name in the NBA draft. On Wednesday, forward Omari Spellman did the same. And just like that, the Wildcats had lost four players from the 2018 national championship team who had eligibility remaining.
Now ‘Nova knows what life is like at Duke and Kentucky, turnstile programs that annually lose their top players to the pros. Except Jay Wright’s program wins more than the other two.
The departures of Villanova stars Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson were announced weeks ago and completely expected. Bridges spent four years at Villanova, is expected to be a lottery pick and has his degree; Brunson spent three years on campus and reportedly is on target to get his degree this summer. Throw in two championship rings apiece and they got everything a student-athlete could ask of the college experience.
DiVincenzo and Spellman are different. Nobody was expecting DiVincenzo to be part of the 2018 draft until he blew the roof off the Alamodome, scoring 31 points on Michigan in the national title game. Spellman was a maybe, a talented player who was fifth on the team in minutes and fourth in scoring and could have been the team’s centerpiece in 2018-19.
In past years, Villanova’s borderline guys had opted to leave later than earlier. Not so this spring. And with both DiVincenzo and Spellman gone, Wright’s rock-solid program is now experiencing a rare transient stage.
The Wildcats of ’18-19 will have two things Duke and Kentucky lack in senior program veterans Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. There also could be a graduate transfer (Stanford’s Reid Travis). But they will lean on a talented freshman class — which, if given starring roles, could in turn hasten their matriculation to pro ball.
It’s not what Wright had in mind when he refashioned his approach several years ago and opted to build a developmental program. He wanted players who want to be on campus, who are willing to invest in a collegiate program and a college way of life and in the higher education experience. He didn’t want players who were looking at college like an IndyCar driver looks at a pit stop — in and out as fast as possible.
Maybe Wright has become too good at player development for his own good.
Still, that rebuilding spin cycle is a lot easier to accept when you’re winning national titles. Duke and Kentucky are locked in the same cycle without the benefit of recent hardware.
In 2015, when Duke won the national title and Kentucky finished 38-1 and advanced to the Final Four, the two programs had a combined nine players drafted. Since then the highly touted recruits have kept coming and going, but the Final Fours have stopped.
In 2016, Kentucky tapped out of the NCAA tournament in the round of 32, its earliest elimination under John Calipari. Duke advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating No. 13 seed UNC Wilmington and and No. 12 Yale, then it was routed by Oregon. The Wildcats had three players drafted (Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere and Tyler Ulis) and the Blue Devils had one (Brandon Ingram, third overall). Each program also lost players to transfer: Marcus Lee and Charles Matthews from UK; Derryck Thornton from Duke.
In 2017, Kentucky advanced to the regional final before losing to eventual national championship North Carolina at the buzzer. Duke was upset in the NCAA second round by eventual Final Four team South Carolina. Seven players from the two teams were drafted — four from Duke (Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson), three from Kentucky (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo). All but Kennard were freshmen. And, once again, that was not the only underclass turnover — Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries both left Lexington and went undrafted, while Chase Jeter transferred out of Durham.
This past season saw Kentucky eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Kansas State and Duke lose in the regional final to Kansas in overtime. Despite once again not reaching the programs’ lofty goals, the player exodus is major. Four freshmen are leaving the Blue Devils for the draft (Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent), and three for sure are leaving the Wildcats (Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox). Kentucky learned Wednesday that freshman P.J. Washington is returning to school, but Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel made the decision to go pro. Sacha Killeya-Jones and Tai Wynyard also both left UK this spring, after two seasons.
This year, more than any other, shows the pitfalls of recruiting entire rosters of players who don’t envision themselves being in college for long. Many of them feel compelled to move on before they’re ready, apparently because being a college junior at Duke or UK is to be labeled a failure.
Duval and Trent both bring major defensive questions to the NBA, and Diallo has shown very little skill to go along with his considerable athleticism. Still, they likely will get drafted, which could be more than Vanderbilt or Gabriel can say.
Those two players proved little about their long-term worth in college — Vanderbilt played 14 games and scored all of 82 collegiate points — and didn’t win much by program standards. They got much less out of the college experience than Villanova’s pro-bound players.
John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have become the annual kings of signing day and draft day. Lately, Jay Wright is the coach who has owned Final Four Monday.
This June, Wright will be as involved as Cal and K on draft day, and will have comparable rebuilding work awaiting him when practice for next season begins. With four key players going pro, Villanova is now in a transition phase of undetermined length. But the stress of that rebuilding job is more manageable when you’re working beneath a brand new national championship banner.
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