Jalen Brunson returning should keep Villanova in the mix

David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

Roster turnover is usually a good program’s biggest problem each new season. For the Villanova Wildcats, this is certainly an issue, but with Jalen Brunson officially returning next season it puts Jay Wright in a good position to remain near the top.

Brunson averaged 14.7 points and 4.1 assists per game during the 2016-17 season. As importantly, he shot 54 percent from the field and a solid 38 percent from beyond the arc. Those are your counting-stats semantics.

He represents so much more than that. Especially for a program that has reached that national prominence level, but still needs to show it can hover near greatness on an annual basis. While it is — deservedly so — accepted that Villanova is the crème de la crème of the Big East, given how many casual fans wrongly view the conference, it’s going to take some work to convincing non-diehards that Nova belongs with other blue-blood programs.

Villanova is expected to also return Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth (will need NCAA eligibility ruling), and Omari Spellman. Barring any craziness, random transferring or kicking off team, those guys join Brunson as Nova’s core moving forward.

That is a presumed strong five donning Nova uniforms next season, tough it is a mostly inexperienced bunch.

The Wildcats are also bringing in a pair of four-star recruits. This, again, adds to a level of inexperience.

Outside of Brunson, DiVincenzo and Bridges, everyone else who is projected to be a key player next season had zero impact on last season. In experience’s place will be Booth who was dealing with injuries last season, Spellman who was a non-qualifier, and incoming freshmen who were still going through their awkward teenage years in high school.

Brunson does aid in offsetting that. A soon-to-be-junior, the guard offers a level of on-court leadership that should make the 2017-18 Wildcats seem less like a young group and more like a hybrid of veterans and guys without too much experience.

Even DiVcenzo, who played a relatively big role this past season, doesn’t have a ton of experience. He saw an increased role as the season began to wind down, and he appears to be ready to be the next cagey Nova player, but he isn’t a guarantee.

Nor are most of the guys on the roster. Outside of Brunson and Bridges, everyone else falls in that “mostly unknown commodities” category. We assume Spellman will be special, but we’ve yet to see him play a single second on the college level; Booth was great in the 2016 NCAA Tournament title game, but how does he do after missing most of the season; freshmen often take a bit to adjust.

This puts extra pressure on Wright’s more battle-tested stars for sure. Then again, this obviously beats the alternative of having no Bridges or Brunson returning next season, which would have put the Wildcats in a full rebuild mode as opposed to the reloading on the fly sort the program is likely to go through.

The key positive to note here, specifically while talking about Brunson, is that he began to showcase dynamic playmaker abilities last season. He got it down really well for himself early on, but the best part of it — for a young team next season — is that he started to be able to get other guys around him involved in a more readily available fashion.

Brunson turned being able to drive to the basket and score into being able to do that, but also find teammates cutting or open behind the arc. This decreases the importance of having other heady/experienced players on the court, as Brunson can do the heavy lifting from a creating-a-shot standpoint for them.

Alas, having what will be a mix of young and old isn’t the worst thing ever. For programs of Villanova’s ilk, this is really just the norm. It is just that it could have been so much worse, which makes the official announcement of Brunson’s return important.

For a program still evolving, going from Big East power to in the mix nationally, Brunson’s biggest contribution next season should might be in helping Wright highlight the university’s ability to be sustainability great — an aspect of the sport that separates the top-tier programs from the grouping one notch below them.

Mind you, Villanova has already reached that level, but after having to fight through the “early-round exits” perception before winning the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats will have to continue to jam this factoid down folks’ throats.

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