The images and the feelings were palpable. A National Championship for the first time in 31 years, and there would be no way you would forget when you entered the Pavilion on Friday night, the first regular season game since the title.
A shiny new National Championship banner, the hype videos that featured “The Shot,” a “2016” on the program’s Final Four appearances banner, all were new additions to the Pavilion.
Then there were the recognizable basketball elements that evoked memories of the 2015-2016 team. A Kris Jenkins three on his first field goal attempt (trailing the passer, as fate would have it), a Josh Hart steal, both in the first four minutes, and a three quarter court press that gave Lafayette fits.
But there was a freshness about this season-opener in the early minutes, too. A Dante DiVincenzo putback as he rose high above the rim on a Jenkins miss, an Eric Paschall block, and a sense of confidence that only comes with achieving success on the national stage.
“Just wanted to set the tone, come out and play hard, play Villanova basketball, and then the offense just comes after that,” Jenkins said after the game when asked about beginning his season the way it ended last year.
The Wildcats, with a raucous student section behind them eager to embark upon the new campaign, raced out to a 25-2 lead in the opening minutes, highlighted by ball movement, forced turnovers, and easy buckets at the rim.
“Good start for us,” Head Coach Jay Wright said after the game. “We really started well and our defense played great early…It came with our leadership with Josh [Hart] and Kris [Jenkins] and Darryl [Reynolds].”
Perhaps that is the most impressive thing about Villanova’s season opener. Not the fact that the team earned a 40 point victory against the team picked to finish second-to-last in the Patriot League, but specifically the quick start to bury an undermanned Leopards team in the first ten minutes. Not lost in the moment or the hype, Villanova came to play from the opening tip.
“Our coaching staff has done a great job of keeping us humble and focused on the task at hand, and we have guys that are coachable, guys that want to listen, guys that want to win,” Jenkins said. “In order to win, we have to continue to put [the championship] behind us and focus on what is in front of us.”
It started to feel as if it was back to business throughout the first half, a half highlighted by 56% shooting, Mikal Bridges nearly putting up a double-double, and Jenkins nailing three triples.
A good show not just for the Villanova fans, but for ESPN Top 100 recruit and local product Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who made an appearance Friday night and signed his letter of intent with Villanova on Wednesday.
The second half somewhat plodded along, as Villanova outscored Lafayette 39-31 in the period. Wright tinkered with a zone in the second half, something he admitted he ideally would not want to play against a team like Lafayette, but a defensive formation he knows his team will need to learn to play cohesively over the course of the season.
Of course, in 2015-2016, Villanova struggled playing zone defense in the limited times it did so in the regular season, most emphatically in a loss at Virginia in December. But Wright echoed the same message throughout last season, that Villanova may get beaten by it in the regular season, but that it NEEDS to play good zone defense by March to be the team it wants to be.
Fast forward to April 4, 2016, and it is safe to say Villanova became a decent zone defensive team.
And so in many ways, Friday night at the Pavilion was eerily familiar, yet entirely different. A new team with new contributors off the bench, but the same Villanova-style basketball that just seven months ago was sufficient to raise a title banner.
Next up for Villanova is a road trip to Mackey Arena on Monday night to face the Purdue Boilermakers, fresh off a first round exit in the NCAA tournament, and Wright realizes the Boilermakers could provide a tough matchup.
“That’s going to be the challenge.” Wright said. “Literally, they’ll be the biggest team. I think they are the biggest team in the country.”