NEW YORK -- Earlier in his college career, even a year ago, Mikal Bridges wouldn't have dunked it. He would have tried to lay the ball in, and the result might not have been the same.
But on Tuesday night, the Villanova redshirt junior wasn't going to settle. Bridges took off in traffic, skied over multiple defenders and threw down a dunk that helped propel the Wildcats to an 88-72 victory over Gonzaga at the Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
"I just saw a lane and tried to go up and be strong," Bridges said. "Freshman year, I would have laid the ball up. The seniors would get on me for that."
Bridges, one of this season's breakout stars, had his official star turn on Tuesday, finishing with 28 points, six rebounds, two blocks and five 3-pointers. It was one thing to perform well earlier this season against Nicholls State and Lafayette, but to hit his career-high on a national stage like Madison Square Garden was an eye-opener.
"He knows this year he's the leader and the captain," head coach Jay Wright said. "He's playing with a lot more freedom and aggressiveness. He knows it's his turn and he's ready for it. He's ready mentally and he's ready skill-wise."
Bridges is the latest example of Villanova having a pipeline of standout veterans ready to step up without missing a beat.
There was James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston. From there it was Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono. Now it's Bridges, All-American point guard Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Wright has a never-ending stable of breakout stars.
And we should know that by now. But every year, there are preseason questions about Villanova, how they will replace this departing star or that departing star. As a result -- and combined with a recent history of NCAA tournament flameouts, the national championship notwithstanding -- the Wildcats rarely get the same early-season recognition some of the nation's best teams get. It's no different this season. Duke is the focus of everyone nationally, and rightfully so, but the conversation next goes to Kansas and Michigan State. Rarely is Villanova mentioned with those three, in the "elite" tier of college basketball this season.
After Tuesday night's performance against Gonzaga, that's going to change.
Villanova plays at a high level at both ends of the floor. The Wildcats are insanely efficient scoring the ball, putting five guys on the floor at all times that can dribble, pass and shoot. There were times 6-foot-8 Omari Spellman and 6-foot-7 Eric Paschall were taking dribble handoffs on the perimeter, and times where 6-foot-2 Brunson was posting up on the low block. Six different players attempted a 3-pointer, and that doesn't include Brunson. Spellman gives them a different dimension than they've had in recent years, due to his size and ability to score inside and out.
Defensively, Villanova is so versatile it's difficult to create matchup problems with the Wildcats. They force turnovers and pressure the ball without giving up easy baskets, and they hold their own on the glass without playing anyone taller than 6-foot-8.
The return of Booth has been a huge asset for Villanova as well. Booth, who scored 20 points in the national championship game win over North Carolina, missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury. But he has now scored in double-figures in four straight games, pouring in 20 points on Tuesday.
"Every practice, every game, I've been feeling more comfortable," Booth said. "Last year was hard. But I learned a lot from that year sitting out. I saw the game from a totally different perspective, so to get back out this year playing and trying to incorporate what I learned last year, that's what I really tried to do. It's great being back out there playing."
Before Tuesday, it was fair to put Villanova a step behind Duke, Kansas and Michigan State. The Wildcats hadn't really played anyone, with expected marquee opponents Arizona and Purdue falling early at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. Their best win heading into the week was a nine-point victory over Tennessee, but that was about it.
Tuesday answered some of the questions, and now Villanova belongs with the best of the best nationally.