How Omari Spellman became the perfect final piece in Villanova's Final Four puzzle

Villanova has been involved in only four games this season decided by five points or fewer, so there aren't many moments in the Wildcats' run to the Final Four that can qualify as a turning point.

Omari Spellman's second-half stretch against West Virginia in the Sweet 16 fits the bill.

Villanova was on the ropes and trailed the Mountaineers by six points midway through the second half. After a 9-0 run to regain some footing in the game, Spellman blocked a James Bolden layup attempt, ran the floor to the offensive end and followed up a Phil Booth missed layup with a putback dunk.

"I saw [Bolden] put his head down," Spellman said. "I forget who he was going against, but he had him chested pretty well. I just saw the opportunity for the block. I came over and got the rebound and tried to outlet it, and I saw Phil going to the hoop, and I was just thinking to myself, 'If he misses this, I got to get it.' So it just happened to come off the right way, and I just tried to finish it."

Spellman followed with two 3-pointers, the latter of which gave the Wildcats a 10-point lead with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left and sealed their Elite Eight appearance.

"Amazing," Booth said. "That's the Omari we know."

It wasn't always that way. When Spellman arrived at Villanova in 2016, it was a wake-up call. His weight, which fluctuated during the latter part of his high school career, peaked at nearly 300 pounds.

"[Villanova coaches] just pretty much told me, which is true, you can't be an elite player at this level or any level continuing forward, at 300 pounds, 25 percent body fat," Spellman said. "I never want to go back to being unhealthy that way."

Spellman credits John Shackleton, Villanova's strength and conditioning coach, for helping change his body. Candy, snacks and junk food were eliminated from his diet, replaced by pistachios, carrots and peanut butter. Early morning hot yoga classes became a staple of his conditioning.

"I just had to be more mature in the things I ate," Spellman said. "There's nothing wrong with a salad, there's nothing wrong with grilled chicken. Not everything has to be fried or sweet. I'm just maturing in the way I eat."

Down to around 245 pounds, Spellman is more nimble, more mobile and one of the most versatile big men in the country. He showed against West Virginia how he has improved as a defender and he can run the floor as well as any big man. That doesn't happen without a commitment to getting in shape.

"Did he have the discipline? Yes. Did he need to be pushed? Yes," said Jere Quinn, Spellman's high school coach at St. Thomas More in Connecticut. "Him having to sit a year really possibly inspired him to even be better. More of a sense of urgency. In retrospect, that could have been the best thing to ever happen to him."

That year sitting out was the result of Spellman being ruled academically ineligible for his freshman season. Jay Wright publicly disagreed with the NCAA's decision and said, "I think I'm argued out," the day the ruling came down.

The first inkling of a potential issue came when Spellman wasn't selected for the McDonald's All-America game the previous winter. As a consensus five-star prospect, Spellman was supposed to be a shoo-in, so it was a surprise when the rosters were released and his name wasn't listed. After a couple phone calls from his coaches, the reasoning became clear: the NCAA determined that Spellman did not complete his initial eligibility requirements in time. He was considered a fifth-year prospect because his high school clock started before he had decided to repeat the eighth grade.

After an emotional few days following the NCAA's ruling, Spellman bought into the value of redshirting at Villanova. It's not uncommon for players under Wright to redshirt -- Eric Paschall, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges and Booth have all done so.

"He's just got his attitude a lot better," Paschall said. "Of course hearing that news that year was really hard on him. But he's just done a great job, just worrying about his teammates, willing to do whatever to make us a better team. He's helped out tremendously. He's doing everything. He's enjoying it and we love seeing him doing that."

Quinn remembers welcoming Spellman to the St. Thomas More campus for the first time, after Spellman had transferred in from the MacDuffie School in Massachusetts. Spellman enrolled for summer school and Quinn went to go see him. At some point early in their relationship, Spellman challenged Quinn to a shooting contest.

"I beat him the first time and refused to play him again," Quinn said. "I'm no fool."

Nowadays, Quinn, who recently won his 1,000th game at St. Thomas More, might not stand a chance against Spellman. It's nothing against Quinn -- not many people would.

Spellman has developed into one of the best shooting big men in the country, leading Villanova from behind the arc at 44.6 percent. He has continued his stellar shooting in the NCAA tournament, going 9-for-19 in four tourney games.

According to his former coaches, Spellman making perimeter shots isn't anything new; it's more about the volume. Remember, this is a player who is 6-foot-9 and was once approaching 300 pounds. At the high school level, Spellman was able to overpower defenders and finish around the basket consistently. The touch was there, he just didn't need to use it as much.

"People don't understand how ultra-skilled that kid was," said Terrance "Munch" Williams, director of the PSA Cardinals AAU program. Williams coached Spellman from seventh grade until the end of his high school career.

"He's always had a low-post game, but even if you look at EYBL numbers, he shot the 3-ball at a high percentage. He's always been able to stretch it out. Face-up, midrange game, short elbow stuff. He's the most skilled big that this program has ever had."

Shooting is the lifeblood of the offensive system at Villanova. The Wildcats have ranked in the top-35 nationally in each of the last five years in 3-point attempt volume, making at least 35 percent from behind the arc in each of those seasons. This season, Villanova is No. 15 in 3-point percentage and No. 16 in percentage of points from 3-pointers.

Spellman knew of that tradition upon his arrival at Villanova and worked on his jumper in the offseason. Villanova charts practice shots and Spellman said the numbers soon started showing he was making 70 out of 100, 80 out of 100.

"It makes you have to play me honest, creates driving opportunities for me at times," Spellman said. "I'm being guarded by the five-man and the other team's shot-blocker. A lot of times I can get all the way to the rim and if not, I can kick it to someone who is open. It makes us really hard to guard, when you have five shooters at all times because you have to pick your poison."

The numbers bear that out. Villanova is by far the nation's most efficient offensive team and is on pace to finish as the second-most efficient offense in the past 17 years, second to only 2015 Wisconsin. It's not all due to Spellman -- All-American Jalen Brunson and potential lottery pick Bridges lead the way -- but the Wildcats have never had a 5-man who can stretch the floor like him.

When Spellman is on the floor alongside Brunson, Bridges, Booth and DiVincenzo, the Wildcats possess five players who have made at least 50 3-pointers this season and who shoot 38.5 percent or better from behind the arc. That's just a brutal ask for opponents.

"We've got our 5-man, Omari, at the 3-point line knocking down consistent 3s, not just every once in a while," DiVincenzo said. "When he's coming out, it just opens up the lane for us, our guards to get downhill. If we can collapse them, we just get open shots."

It's all coming together for Villanova, and for Spellman, who has gone from being out of shape and ineligible to being one of the catalysts on a team two wins from a national championship.

"He's never been a kid who quit on anything, backed away from obstacles and challenges," Williams said. "Every step was a mental challenge. What he's doing is second to none."

"This is like once-in-a-lifetime stuff," Spellman said.

When he's not doing hot yoga before the sun comes up or making 80 3-pointers in a day, Spellman spends a lot of his off-court time writing -- poetry, in particular.

"Basketball for me is like poetry. It's an outlet. It's something to put my all into and get my emotions out and leave it all out there."
Omari Spellman

It's something he started doing in seventh, eighth grade, as a version of "self-therapy," as he puts it.

"For me, I was a very angry child," Spellman said. "I just needed a way to get those emotions out in a healthy way. I just started writing. Trying to be vulnerable with myself."

He tries not to write too often during basketball season, but during the summer he will get back to it. After Wright once joked with him that he was going to write a novel, Spellman laughed it off -- until he started writing a novel last summer.

Spellman has handwritten poems, ones saved on his computer, some saved in his phone. Whatever he can get his hands on when he wants to get a thought or feeling out.

"He's done a phenomenal job of understanding a balance to life, and finding time to be an individual and learn stuff outside of campus," Williams said. "He's grown in that area. There's a deeper content to what he wants to speak about."

One thing Spellman won't write about? Basketball.

"Basketball for me is like poetry," he said. "It's an outlet. It's something to put my all into and get my emotions out and leave it all out there."

If Villanova is to cut down the nets this weekend, expect just that from Spellman.