Villanova opens with 75-60 win over Columbia

Mike Kern, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News on

Published in Basketball

PHILADELPHIA -- Every journey has to begin someplace.

The last four seasons, Villanova has won 29, 33, 35, and 32 games. That of course included a national championship run two years ago. Now the Wildcats are starting out as the nation's sixth-ranked team. That means that, barring something unforeseen, chances are they'll probably end up winning somewhere around 30 once again.

But there are no guarantees. That might explain why they've also been eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as either a 1 or a 2 seed in three of those seasons.

Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center, where the Wildcats will play almost all of their home games instead of the usual handful while the Pavilion undergoes an extensive renovation, this journey got underway against a Columbia team that came in as a 25-point underdog.

Their next game, on Tuesday against visiting Nicholls State, should be more of the same. Ditto the matchup with one-time Villanova great Fran O'Hanlon's Lafayette squad three nights later in Allentown.

Things don't figure to heat up until they go to the Bahamas for the Battle For Atlantis tourney over the Thanksgiving holiday, where they could play Top 25 Purdue in the second game and maybe Top 5 Arizona in the final.

But first you have to get through the prelims. And that's what the Wildcats did, pretty much as anticipated. The final was 75-60 Friday. Still, it was tied midway through the first half, at 12 apiece.

The Wildcats would score 11 of the last 15 before halftime to take a 32-23 lead.

It was their 15th straight opening win. It's the first time they've opened in this building, which opened in 1996. Last season they were 4-0 in South Philadelphia.

We should mention that the Lions beat Villanova, 75-57, in the last meeting, in November 2012 on the Main Line. The Wildcats would go on to win 20 that season. But Columbia still hasn't beaten a ranked opponent since 1994.

Jay Wright started forward Eric Paschall (15 points, nine rebounds) instead of guard Donte DiVincenzo (13 points, five rebounds). And in time the three freshmen will give him more of a bench. Guard Collin Gillespie (six points) looks the most ready right now. It's a long journey.

This is finally Jalen Brunson's team. The point guard scored 14 points Friday on 5 of 12 shooting to go along with three assists and three rebounds. Paschall looked active. Phil Booth is back, after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury. And big man Omari Spellman (11 points, 11 rebounds) is a factor in the making, after sitting out last season as an academic redshirt.

The Wildcats will have to play better. And they will. It's merely the first step.

Kyle Castlin led the Lions with 10 points.

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