PITTSBURGH – Mikal Bridges walked into the Villanova locker room following his time at the postgame press conference and prepared to sit on the inside of his locker. More than a half-hour had passed since the top-seeded Wildcats finished defeating Alabama, 81-58, in the NCAA Tournament East Region second round. It had been more than an hour since he’d made the last basket in a scoring explosion that ranked with the most incredible outbursts in the college game’s history.
Still, Eric Paschall had to check. “Hey, gimme your hand,” he said. Bridges, knowing what was coming but a great teammate even with this sort of silliness, reluctantly complied. Paschall reacted as if he’d just placed his hand on a sizzling griddle. He even made a hissing sound.
Of course he did.
Had Paschall touched that same hand at halftime, he might have gotten frostbite. That is how it goes for a great player sometimes. He must find his moment to damage the opponent, but he must always believe that he can.
“My teammates and coaches were on me: You know what you have to do; you know what type of player you are,” Bridges told reporters. “I give all the credit to my coaches and my teammates. They stuck with me and never gave up and knew what I had in me. They kept me confident.”
It wasn’t hard for Villanova to believe in Bridges when he was 0-for-5 in the first half, because he has become one of the best players in Division I basketball in 2017-18. He is projected by NBA Draft analysts to be selected in the lottery portion of the 2018 Draft.
Here’s what is hard to believe: Bridges entered Villanova as a prospect whose recruitment was less than feverish and proceeded to spend his first year on campus as a redshirt: training, practicing but never playing.
In a season that has seen so much focus on what is wrong with college basketball, Bridges is the ideal example of why it is such a worthwhile pursuit. Bridges is the reigning Big East Tournament MVP, a third-team Sporting News All-American, a 6-6 wing who averages 17.9 points and 5.5 rebounds and shoots .520/.435/.851.
“We have a kid who’s a projected first-round pick, who’s probably going to be an All-American, that’s one of the best players in the country who just continues to allow us to push him to his limit,” assistant coach Ashley Howard told Sporting News. “He’s never confrontational with the coaches, never misses a class, never late to anything. It’s just a too-good-to-be-true scenario when you have a player of that caliber.
“Just the fact alone that when we go to practice tomorrow, he’s going to allow us to critique him, criticize him, take it in and respond.”
Here is a number that may capture the intrinsic beauty of college basketball better than any other: better than 64 (the number of teams that ignite each NCAA Tournament when the first round begins each year), better than 88 (the record number of consecutive games UCLA won during the Walton years), better than 16 (the seed UMBC wore into Friday night’s historic upset of top-ranked Virginia).
You ready? Here it is: 81.
That is what Bridges was ranked by 24/7 Sports as a 6-6 wing out of Great Valley High in Malvern, Pa. He had offers from Charlotte, Fairfield, George Washington and, yes, one from Florida in addition to his opportunity to stay closer to home and enroll at Villanova. That is what he chose, and it was a fortuitous decision because as a redshirt freshman he played 20 minutes a game and averaged 6.4 points on a team that won the 2016 NCAA Championship.
At that moment, some analysts wondered – oh, yeah, I was one of them – if Villanova had just become the first team since 1987 to win the title without an NBA first-round pick on its roster. Josh Hart’s emergence as a first-team All-American and late-round pick last season settled that, but even then it wasn’t obvious there was a legitimate lottery pick in the house.
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Of four mock drafts from last June, two had him in the final picks of the first (CBS 28, Bleacher Report 30) and NBC didn’t mention him. Sporting News (yay, team!) had him at No. 24.
So, no, you did not see this coming.
“I’d be lying if I told you I anticipated him blowing up into a weapon who could give you 20 points in a half,” Howard said. “But we knew given the role he had this year, the confidence the coaches instilled in him, he could be a big-time player for us this year.”
This is how this wonderful game can work, though. A player arrives with potential, is coached by people who know their business, dedicates himself to improvement, takes advantage of opportunity and develops into something extraordinary. This process can take one year, as for Eric Bledsoe at Kentucky. It can take four years, as it did for Frank Kaminsky at Wisconsin.
Bridges needed three — wait, no, there was that redshirt year, so four. And every minute of the time he invested paid off in the second half against Alabama. He missed every shot he attempted in the first half against Alabama. Like teammates Omari Spellman and Jalen Brunson, each of whom committed two early personal fouls and had their minutes limited, Bridges was bailed out by super-sub Donte DiVincenzo’s 5-of-9 shooting from 3-point range and 18 points.
The Wildcats were ahead, 32-27, at the break, having made only two baskets from inside the 3-point line and turned over the ball six times. Then the second half arrived, and Bridges happened. There was the jumper he made at the start, then the three free throws after he was fouled by Bama’s Herbert Jones while shooting from deep. There was the dunk he threw down off a sweet feed from guard Phil Booth. There was a 3-pointer in transition off a pass from DiVencenzo. There was his stunning top-of-the-ball block with 16:10 left against Bama’s 6-9 Galin Smith.
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Hey, we’re just getting started.
There was a 3-pointer from the right wing after Brunson drove the left baseline and issued a perfect kick-out pass. There was a deeper three from the same area on a dribble handoff from Booth. He airballed a 15-footer with 14:36 left just to show he was human, but it was saved from going out of bounds by forward Eric Paschall. Just six seconds after he had missed everything, Bridges did not hesitate to fire another 3-pointer from the left corner. He hit only the inside of the net.
That added up to 19 points in 5½ minutes.
He was given a rest a minute later and drew a standing ovation from the Villanova fans at PPG Paints Arena. He owed them nothing else after finishing with 23 points, having shot 7-of-11 in the second half, 5-of-6 from deep. But after concluding an on-court, post-game interview with CBS’s Dana Jacobson, he turned to the Nova section and did a soccer-style high-clap to show his appreciation for their support.
“I tell Mikal, ‘You work too hard every day not to be in the position you’re in. You should be confident all the time. You should have the killer mentality at all times,” All-American point guard Jalen Brunson told Sporting News. “I felt Mikal could be a really good player. I didn’t not expect this; I knew he was capable of this. I just wanted him to keep going, stay confident, stay aggressive. Mikal, he’s firing at will right now.”