NCAA champion Villanova opens vs. Lafayette
Villanova is set to take its first official step in defending its national championship when it plays host to host Lafayette on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 2) at the Pavilion in Villanova, Pa.
The Wildcats defeated North Carolina on April 4 for their first national title since 1985. They begin the 2016-17 season ranked No. 4 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Villanova will on campus with an expected raucous sold-out crowd to be in attendance Friday.
It is a new season with a number of new faces.
“The challenge is really our ego and staying humble and hungry and getting better,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “No matter what you did last year, everyone is a different person this year. So we have different challenges, and we lose two outstanding leaders on the floor and three walk-ons who were great leaders. We have challenges, and if we recognize the challenges and don't concentrate on our accomplishments, we have a shot.”
The Wildcats will open this season without steady point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu, two key pieces on last season's national championship team that finished 35-5.
However, there's plenty of talent returning to the Main Line, led by senior forward Kris Jenkins, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer of the national championship game against the Tar Heels. Jenkins averaged 13.6 points and converted a Big East-leading 100 3-point baskets last season.
However, in Villanova's 94-49 exhibition win over the Indiana University of Pennsylvania last Saturday, Jenkins didn't start because he missed a targeted weight leading up to the game.
Jenkins proved his mettle through the regular season and the entire NCAA Tournament, and he realizes this is a new beginning.
“It is already behind me,” Jenkins said of last season's championship. “You know we're focused and ready to go this year. We have a lot of things that we're working on and continuing to get better at. We have a good team here, and we want to be the best team we can be by the end of the year. So you know we're all focused on that.”
The Wildcats return three starters from last year's team, including senior guard Josh Hart, a preseason All-American. Hart averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last year. Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson averaged 9.6 points and earned a spot on the Big East All-Freshman Team.
After reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15, Lafayette lost three 1,000-point scorers and slipped to 6-24 overall and 3-15 in the Patriot League last year. The Leopards lost to Navy in the first round of the Patriot League tournament.
Lafayette will be guided mostly by senior point guard Nick Lindner, a two-time captain who has scored more than 1,000 points and handed out more than 400 assists in his career.
The Leopards must replace five seniors, led by Bryce Scott, who landed in the record books in a variety of offensive categories. Scott made 213 career 3-pointers and was a 40.7 percent career 3-point shooter.
“We can definitely put some guys on the floor that can shoot and score, but that might not equate to our best defensive unit,” Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon said. “Our problems have come in defense and rebounding, and it will only get better if our big guards can take advantage of matchups on the wings. We're not big inside, so that puts pressure on our guards to rebound.”
With a young group, the Leopards must open the season on the road against the defending national champions. Not an easy task.
“Villanova will be a great experience for our guys,” O'Hanlon said. “Obviously, it's a formidable opponent. It's like playing Alabama in football. Playing in an environment like that will be a hot ticket. Everybody wants to see the banners raised. It will be a great night.”