Coming off big win, St. John’s challenges Villanova

PHILADELPHIA — Forward Omari Spellman is one of the most seasoned freshmen in the country and it is paying huge dividends for top-ranked Villanova.

Spellman could not compete in games last season because of an NCAA rule regarding his high school graduation period. Yet Spellman got into condition and spent time with his teammates last season, and he has started to flourish this season.

In Sunday’s 92-76 win over Seton Hall, Spellman poured in 26 points, one shy of his career high. Spellman will look to build on that momentum when the Wildcats (22-1, 9-1 Big East) continue a four-game homestand with a battle against St. John’s (11-13, 0-11) on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

“Last year helped him a lot even though he was injured. He was able to spend a lot of time around the program,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “He was able to get in shape and do a lot of conditioning while injured, which makes him different than any other freshman. He got on a diet and has become so much more intelligent in basketball knowledge, which has made him a great player.”

Spellman was 9 of 12 from the field, including 6 of 7 from beyond the 3-point arc against the Pirates.

“I think it says a lot about my teammates and how good they are,” Spellman said of being open. “You have to worry about everybody and sometimes they (the opposing team) pick me to try and beat them.”

Spellman added 11 rebounds while Jalen Brunson scored 21 points and Mikal Bridges added 17.

If Spellman continues to produce at this rate, the Wildcats will continue to thrive, even without injured guard Phil Booth.

“It’s his demeanor,” Brunson said of Spellman. “He’s doing a great job of expanding all the things he can do. He doesn’t care about the stats or the spotlight, he’s just playing as hard as he can for us.”

St. John’s hasn’t defeated Villanova since Feb. 26, 2011, in an 81-68 victory.

However, in their most recent game, the Red Storm stunned then-No. 4 Duke 81-77 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. The Blue Devils dropped to No. 9 after the loss.

St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds scored 33 points in its first win over a top-five opponent since 2011. Ponds added seven rebounds, four steals and three assists.

Bashir Ahmed scored 19 points and Tariq Owens contributed 17 for the Red Storm.

St. John’s coach Chris Mullin pointed to his team’s defensive effort as the biggest key in the victory. It will need to be terrific once again against the Wildcats.

“It’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Mullin told reporters after the Duke game. “I thought we did a better job of scoring off our defense. Our defense has been able to get stops and force turnovers, but we haven’t capitalized in transition. That’s something that I think we should be really good at and we did a good job last game and even better today. I thought we got stops, got the ball up the floor, and saw what’s out there.”

St. John’s fell to Villanova 78-71 on Jan. 13, a game in which Ponds poured in a career-best 37 points.