Despite losing preseason All-American forward Jaylen Baer to an early season knee injury, Villanova got the victory it was looking for in the opener against Syracuse on Friday night, defeating the Orange 67-53.
The Wildcats improved to 3-0 in the season-opening game, giving them a 25-game winning streak against FBS opponents. Not counting intercollegiate matches, the Wildcats also have a 42-game winning streak against non-Division I opponents, dating back to Dec. 2, 2015, when they lost to Coppin State.
But Villanova had to overcome numerous obstacles before it could fulfill its goal of turning down Syracuse for an undefeated season. Coach Jay Wright picked up his 1,000th career win in the game, snapping a streak of four straight first-year head coaches reaching that milestone. The game was also Wright’s 1,000th as a head coach.
“I think the only time I felt nervous was when they scored the 15th [losing] bucket and we were up 20,” Wright said after the game. “Then I felt relieved because it was only 15 points. I was thinking, ‘We’re up 20 with 30 to go? Good. We can’t play bad now.’ But once the game was over, I just wanted to win it and celebrate with my family.”
Junior forward Omari Spellman led the game with 21 points, and guard Mikal Bridges added 17.
“I thought he [Spellman] did a great job,” Wright said of Spellman, who preformed in front of close friend Jaylin Walker, a 6-foot-6 freshman at North Carolina State. “He was physical. He was in the lane, and he got in positions to score. He played one hell of a game.”
But the big story of the night belonged to a freshman, who at 6-foot-9 and 247 pounds, dominated the game’s tallest player, 6-foot-9 Sterling Gibbs, in a battle between two of the best centers in the nation.
Some of Villanova’s star players that night, anyway. Point guard Jalen Brunson and Spellman both have the makings of potential all-Americans, and Bridges and center Mikal Bridges are expected to develop into big parts of the team’s offense in time.
It has been a busy week for the Wildcats. Wright also spent the weekend in Moscow to attend the Eurocamp, where Brunson and teammate Donte DiVincenzo were selected to the Team USA roster for the FIBA U18 Basketball World Cup. They’ll join two other players from Team USA, his brother Donte and fellow Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo, for the Aug. 31-Sept. 22 tournament in Spain.
If the Wildcats need any extra motivation, consider the message sent this weekend by one of their competitors. On Monday, Duke announced that Aaron Gordon, who was chosen by the team to take Ryan Arcidiacono’s spot for the tournament, had withdrawn because of injury.
Regardless of what Villanova does against Baylor at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, the Wildcats know that they will have their hands full with the best in the Big 12. Baylor averaged 87.4 points a game last season and was picked to finish first by the coaches.
“It is going to be a tough task,” Wright said, “but it is something we are preparing for.”