Monday night the dichotomy currently facing college basketball was highlighted when West Virginia, led by senior hound Jevon Carter’s 10 points, eight and six assists, defeated freshman dynamo Trae Young and Oklahoma for the second time this season. In the era of “one-and-done”, more and more teams have sought to capitalize on short infusions of talent from freshman superstars. As evidenced by LSU with Ben Simmons and Washington with Markelle Fultz, it doesn’t always work out.
Johnny Jones and Lorenzo Romar are subsequently no longer employed. Meanwhile Bob Huggins and West Virginia have been one of the strongest built program in recent years. However, two coaches, Jay Wright of Villanova and Tony Bennett of Virginia, have gone a step further and it has helped them lead two of the most successful programs of the last half decade.
Virginia is currently second in KenPom and been a Top-15 team each of the past five seasons. The Cavaliers play a notoriously slow pace, with an impenetrable defense that has been in the top ten every year since 2014. Bennett has taken the program to heights that disappeared when Terry Holland left decades ago.
Jay Wright has been successfully leading Villanova for a long time now. In the last two years the Wildcats have jumped up an echelon. They’re currently first in the AP Poll and KenPom. They won the 2016 National Championship and have finished in the Top 15 of KenPom for five straight seasons of their own, including first in 2016 and second last year. Wright’s team is Virginia’s antithesis; they’re prolific on the offensive side of the ball and sharpshooting has keyed them.
As the two move along a potential collision course as the nation’s two best teams, they’ve shared another commonality: redshirts. A redshirt is when a student-athlete does not participate in game action with a team, but is typically around the program, while preserving a year of competitive eligibility.
The Cavaliers currently has five. Big bruiser Jack Salt is a redshirt junior and their starting center. Redshirt senior Devon Hall is the team’s second leading scorer at 12.1 Points-per-game, redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter has been dynamic off the bench and strong role players Mamadi Diakite and Nigel Johnson have redshirt years under their belts bolstering their experience. In Virginia’s successful 2015-2016 season, future NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon led the way as he headed on to win ACC Player of the Year and First Team All-America as a redshirt senior.
Villanova’s redshirts are spectacular as well. Wing Mikal Bridges has NBA scouts foaming at the mouth as he drains threes with an athletic build and is a redshirt junior. Jack of all trades forward Eric Paschall sat out a year after transferring from Fordham but now does a little of everything. Donte Divincenzo is a notorious big game player and, like Paschall, his contributions are wide ranging. Even last year, when Villanova’s season ended pre-maturely in the NCAA tournament to Wisconsin, Wright was sitting on two players he had no choice to redshirt. Power forward Omari Spellman was one of the nation’s elite recruits but had to redshirt after academic complications. Phil Booth, a hero off the bench in the 2016 National Championship, dealt with injury and missed the year. The year off helped him heal, and Spellman used his free time to change his body; now both are contributing to the Wildcats domination.
The prevalence of redshirts and program success is not fluky. Bennett runs an intense and grinding scheme. If you can’t handle it, you won’t play. Take a year away to get assimilated and built-up and you have four yeas to fit right in. Wright needs gamers, goes who are ready to go. Bridges and Divencenzo would have helped quite a few programs but their sabbaticals turned them into instant impact players once it was their time. Paschall and Spellman took their years to better themselves. Most players do. It’s understandable if an athlete doesn’t want to sit or a coach needs them to play, but pushing back the timeline is another method on the path to victory, and the nation’s top two have shown this better than anyone else.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.