Madison Square Garden exploded twice, first after a dunk and seconds later a blocked shot. This wasn’t Kristaps Porzingis doing unicorn things. It was Mikal Bridges doing his best impression, showing in one sequence any thought of Villanova taking a step back this year is silly.
It was only a snippet to a dominant performance from the junior, a 28-point, six-rebound, two-block effort in an overwhelming 88-72 victory over No. 12 Gonzaga in the opener of the Jimmy V Classic. But it was apropos of his two-way ability.
“He just knows it’s his turn, and he’s ready for it,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
The 6-foot-6 junior has gone from a complementary player to what looks like a budding star and a potential NBA lottery pick come June. Previously known solely for his defense and 3-point touch, he has become more aggressive and confident. Bridges sank 5-of-9 3-point attempts en route to a career-best performance. He brought the large Villanova crowd to its feet in the second half, throwing down a soaring right-handed dunk over Zags 6-11 center Jacob Larsen, and moments later rejected Josh Perkins.
“It was a really cool sequence,” Wright said after the fourth-ranked Wildcats improved to 9-0.
In previous years, Bridges would have passed up some of the shots he made on Tuesday night. He would defer to veterans. Wright liked that about him. He accepted a redshirt as a freshman rather than burn a year of eligibility as a lightly used reserve, and was fine waiting for his star turn.
“It’s just character — character and intelligence,” Wright said. “Most kids are just thinking about ‘What’s in it for me?’ Mikal loves being a part of a team. He’s smart enough to know, the world might not see it right now, but I’m getting better every day in practice, and it’s going to show next year. He’s smart enough to be patient.”
Entering the season, there were questions about Villanova. It graduated three seniors starters — two of them linchpins, irreplaceable players Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins — who were key to the program’s four straight Big East regular-season crowns.
Except with this program, it’s best not to think about who has left, but who remains. Because so far, Villanova doesn’t look like it is reloading. So far, through nine games, the Wildcats somehow seem, if anything, slightly improved.
“They exploited us on a bunch of detailed things that hopefully we can fix,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after Villanova snapped the Zags’ 64-game streak of holding opponents under 50 percent shooting.
Leading that charge is Bridges. Freshman Omari Spellman, only allowed to practice a year ago because of eligibility issues, gives Wright the skilled 6-9 post presence his program previously lacked. And Bridges, Eric Paschall and freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree offer him the chance to go big without giving up any athleticism. The program still has elite guards in Jalen Brunson, the Big East preseason player of the year, reserve Donte DiVincenzo and junior Phil Booth, who appeared in just eight games a year ago because of a knee injury. Brunson and Booth combined for 32 points — 20 from Booth — taking turns burying Gonzaga when Bridges needed a breather.
“We’re just going to be a tough team to beat if we keep playing hard and getting better,” Bridges said.