NCAA Tournament: Mikal Bridges, from redshirt to ‘vital part'

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VILLANOVA, Pa. — Mikal Bridges did everything for Villanova last year. He practiced, he traveled, he watched video, he sat in meetings.

He did everything but play in actual basketball games.

“I don’t know how he stayed sane,” Josh Hart said. “I’m not sure I could have done it.”

Bridges not only stayed sane during his redshirt year but also learned enough to become a key reserve on a team that spent three weeks this winter ranked No. 1 in the country.

“Going through the whole year and not being able to play, it was something I got used to, but it was still tough not playing with your teammates,” Bridges said.

“I just tried to be as supportive as I could be, get them hyped up before games. Telling them little things I saw on the court from the bench. I couldn’t be out there, but I got to watch and I could pick up on some things they didn’t see.

“You always want to be out there with your brothers, but it was a great learning experience coming into this year. I’m a freshman this year, but I did everything besides play last year so I knew how everything went, how coach likes things, how we do our scouting, so I was a freshman with a real good advantage. But you always wish you were out there.”

Now Bridges, a native of nearby Lower Merion Township, is playing and he’s helping. He’s unique physically at 6-foot-7 with long arms, tremendous athleticism and an ability to defend that’s rare for freshmen. He can run the floor, get out on the break and finish in transition. He can slam with the best of them. And he's even hit 20 three-pointers this year.

Coming off the bench for the 29-5 Wildcats, Bridges is playing 20 minutes per game and averaging 6.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.0 steal.

He’s one of only three freshmen in the Big East averaging at least six points, three rebounds and one steal per game and one of only three freshmen in all of Division I averaging 6.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.0 steal in 20 minutes or less.

But the numbers aren’t really important. What Bridges does best — and what makes him a true Villanova Wildcat — is his ability to defend.

“You know, at this time of year, he becomes far more important because you play bigger teams,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “He was great against Seton Hall defensively on (Big East Tournament MVP Isaiah) Whitehead. He gave us length out there. JayVaughn Pinkston used to do it for us. He could guard a guard. That’s what’s so amazing. He’s going to be a lot more valuable in the (NCAA) Tournament.”

Bridges also made two of three shots and all four of his free throws in the Big East Tournament title game, a two-point loss to Seton Hall. He was actually Villanova’s third-leading scorer Saturday with eight points and second-leading rebounder with six boards.

“And that was at the Garden and was as electric an atmosphere as we’ve ever seen,” Wright said. “So for him to do that in his first Big East Tournament, that was big for him.”

Bridges and the Wildcats open play in the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 12:40 p.m. against UNC Asheville at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (see story).

“I love coming in and just playing hard,” Bridges said. “Whatever it takes to win. Anything. Do whatever I’m asked to do.

“It gives me more confidence knowing [Wright] has confidence in me and my teammates have confidence in me. They build my confidence up. I’m playing the way I am because of them. Because they always have my back.

“Hearing the seniors tell me, ‘You got this,’ or, ‘You can do this,’ hearing it from them, knowing they believe in me, that means a lot. Big-time.”

Interesting note about Bridges:

He’s made 51 of 71 two-point attempts this year, and his 71.8 field goal percentage from two-point range is sixth-best in Division I among players who’ve attempted 50 or more.

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot,” Bridges said. “I think the most important thing ... beginning of the year, I really played hard, really defended, but I was just out there wild.

“Now, I feel like I’m playing smarter. I’m defending and rebounding, paying more attention to detail, getting better and better concentration and understanding the scouting report better.”

Hart is a first-team all-conference pick and remained on the Naismith Award watch list as one of the top 35 players in the country when it was trimmed from 50 at midseason.

And Bridges’ numbers as a freshman are pretty similar to Hart’s numbers two years ago in his freshman year.

“I’m proud of him,” Hart said. “That’s my guy. Came in, I hated him. He would always — open gym — always fouling and all that. I hated him. That whole summer I hated him.

“But just to see how much he’s improving. Took the whole redshirt year and obviously had low points. He wanted to play, he wanted to help us. But he’s a vital part of this team. Gives us great energy off the bench, especially defensively.

“He’s one of the guys, he doesn’t care about offense. He says, ‘I’m going to guard Kris Dunn, I’m going to guard Isaiah Whitehead, I’m going to go guard these elite, dynamic guards, the best in the country,’ and he doesn’t back down.

“That’s the biggest thing he’s bringing us right now. And he’s only going to get better.”

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