A Season without Spellman



Meaghan Bedigian

Courtesy of philly.com

ESPN notifications are great when they’re notifying you of, let’s just say, a 77-74 win against North Carolina. It’s all fun and games until “Villanova five-star freshman deemed ineligible for 2016-17 season” pops up on the screen. Needless to say, Villanova basketball fans did not start their weekends off right, including former Wildcat center and current Washington Wizards rookie Daniel Ochefu who, like many, was notified of freshman Omari Spellman’s academic ineligibility via ESPN notification.

“I think it’s absurd that they aren’t letting him play because he took too many years to finish high school,” Ochefu, who also has experience attending a different high school for a short period of time, said. “Now he may have to do more years in college?”

Standing at 6’9” and ranked No. 18 in the 2016 class, Spellman will sit out the season as an academic redshirt and practice with the team while still retaining his athletic scholarship and four years of athletic eligibility.

“We are extremely disappointed for Omari,” Head Coach Jay Wright said in Friday’s press conference. “While we don’t agree with the NCAA’s decision, we are members of the association and respect it. We understand why the NCAA felt it had to rule this way.”

Ochefu had a chance to speak with Spellman after the decision, and from one “big man” to another, told him to stay positive, put in work and focus on adding to the team through individual development this season.

“Omari is bummed about it, obviously, but he sees this ‘year off’ as an opportunity to get better,” Ochefu said.

Wright is determined to make a positive experience out of this NCAA decision for Spellman, agreeing with Ochefu’s advice to concentrate on his individual development as well as his academics.

“In the long run, Omari will be a better student and player for this experience,” he said.

The ruling was made based on Spellman’s two-month enrollment at Middletown Public High School in New York as a freshman. After those two months, Spellman transferred to Hoosac Private School and enrolled as an eighth-grader based upon the school’s recommendation. Wright told ESPN that this reclassification was strictly for academic reasons, not just athletics.

Despite finishing his secondary education over a total of four years, Spellman’s allotted four years began when he first enrolled at Middletown, therefore making him a five-year high school student in the eyes of the NCAA.

“Once he started his freshman year [at Middletown], his [eligibility] clock started,” Wright told ESPN. “So we get it. We know the rule. We understand the process. We don’t necessarily agree with the decision, but we accept it. We just want to move on in a positive way.’”

Wright told ESPN that the University’s Athletic Department knew about the discrepancy immediately upon recruiting Spellman and brought it to the NCAA’s attention, beginning the lengthy appeals process and even hiring an outside consulting firm to help.

“After the first appeal was denied, I broke down in tears,” Spellman told ESPN. “I didn’t know how to handle it. Two days ago when they told me again [that the final appeal was denied], it was hard but it was more manageable. I’m going to turn it into a positive. Life goes on and I’m just going to keep on working.”

In the face of the loss of not only Ochefu and buzzer-beater assist-maker Ryan Arcidiacono, but now top- recruit Spellman, Ochefu is confident that his former team has it all under control.

“I don’t think we have to make up for anything,” Ochefu said. “We’ve got great leaders stepping in and great players ready to take on bigger roles.”

Junior Kyle La Fronz, reminiscing about his time spent in Houston during the final four last season, was upset with the NCAA ruling, but has faith that ‘Nova still has a chance of a two-peat, something that hasn’t been done since 2007 by the University of Florida.

“In terms of the rule, the NCAA ruled correctly, but the issue is that they created the rule while Omari was in high school, so he should be grandfathered in since he had no ability to change this or fix his eligibility in a sense,” La Fronz said, actively supporting the #FreeOmari hashtag on social media.

Without Spellman and the size that came with him, Wright will rely more on senior forward Darryl Reynolds and freshman big men Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter.

“It’s not an easy task to repeat the national title, but we shouldn’t be written off,” La Fronz said. “Spellman’s ineligibility is a big cog, but Painter looked good in Spain and Tim Delaney’s off as a redshirt. Redshirting has done well in the past for us if you look at Mikal [Bridges].”

Another new name to the roster this season is junior walk-on Matt Kennedy, who lived a floor above La Fronz freshman year.

“I saw him shoot a few times and he’s the real deal,” La Fronz said. “His shot is unbelievable. Silky smooth.”

Besides this year’s newcomers, La Fronz is confident in the returning fan-favorites as well.

“I have a Josh Hart jersey so I’d be lying if I said I don’t fangirl over him every day, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t put the jersey on every day and check it out in the mirror,” La Fronz said. “And you’ve got to love Phil [Booth]. I played ball with him a few times freshman year and I’ve always admired his game.”

Villanova basketball fans and members of the program may not be satisfied with the NCAA’s decision to disallow Spellman from playing this season, but that’s not stopping the team from improving and staying hungry.

And in regard to the National Championship, “All the guys in the locker room know what it’s going to take,” Ochefu said. After all, Ochefu knows best.