Nova recruit Mikal Bridges looks to shed underdog tag

Posted: May 28, 2014

IN THE MIDDLE of winter, following a stunning upset in the Class AAAA District I playoffs, Mikal Bridges, Villanova basketball's incoming freshman forward, couldn't stop driving.

Wissahickon defeated his Great Valley team in the opening round of the playoffs and Bridges' road to a state title was cut short before it could even begin. The following school day, he spent in shock. He couldn't believe the loss. He needed to blow off some steam.

So, he sprinted to his black, shadowy sedan and drove 15 minutes to the Upper Main Line YMCA. With his high school career now complete, he couldn't help but focus on his next opportunity to play basketball.

His future with the Wildcats was looming, and it was time to get in the gym. The always-underrated Bridges was finally putting focus on his college aspirations.

"I was just shocked all night that we lost, I couldn't believe it was over," Bridges said.

"I tried to get my coach and see if we could play, but he was still upset about the loss, so I went to the YMCA and started working on everything. I had to get over it. I had to get my mind off everything and just play basketball."

Since his junior season, Bridges had been underrated due to his high talent level being utilized in a talent-poor Ches-Mont League. He was virtually unknown after completing his third year of school before an impressive display on the Nike EYBL AAU circuit with Philly's Team Final, which led to a June 2013 commitment with the Wildcats.

The 6-7 Bridges is a natural wing player who brings a strong perimeter game to Villanova's already impressive offense. The gangly, 180-pounder is looking to add some muscle this summer and improve his ballhandling before getting to the Main Line.

But now, he's facing a new task. Villanova was ranked in the Top 25 all but the first 2 weeks of last year's college basketball season. There will be more eyes on his mistakes. There will be more attention to the flaws in his game.

The last thing Bridges wants for the start of his college career is to be labeled again as "underrated."

"Being the underdog junior year, people really didn't know anything," Bridges said. "Playing over lower competition, people immediately make assumptions.

"I'm trying to show everyone that I'm not an underdog or that classification you get when you are a freshman in college. I'm here to prove a point."

The Malvern native was drawn to Villanova because of its academics and coaching staff. It didn't matter that Villanova was close to home, because it came down to the coaching staff, which wanted him to be "as good as possible."

But it's the academics that really stuck out for Bridges, before the basketball.

He had extensive conversations with his mother, Tyneeha, and grandmother, Antonia, about the level of academics Villanova offered. On his long list of goals, he wants to be Big East first-team all-academic before he graduates.

Classroom success is equal to achievements on the court for Bridges, but the feeling of being undervalued as a player still hangs over his head. But Villanova assistant head coach Baker Dunleavy sees the future Wildcat forward differently.

Dunleavy believes that Bridges' best basketball is in front of him and that he'll become an extremely productive Big East talent.

"I think the thing that makes him unique is when you see a kid his size and with his length and athleticism it's usually a kid that's played forward or center his whole life and is lacking a bunch of skill," Dunleavy said.

"He can put the ball on the floor and is an underrated passer and I think Villanova fans will be excited by how he can just put the ball in the basket at will."

One of Bridges' goals is to receive his degree from Villanova. Not only for himself, but for the joy it will bring his family.

Before his senior season commences, he wants to be the Big East Player of the Year, a testament to how far his game will have grown in four seasons. And of course, he has his eyes on the NBA.

But for Great Valley's underdog and frequently underappreciated star forward, his future at Villanova will begin as an unknown. A feeling he has learned to deal with during his years with the Patriots.

Bridges said he's not worried about the cameras or the momentary fame or flash that Division I basketball can bring. He just wants to do what has always made him comfortable: Get in the gym and get to work.

"Extra attention and the media and the doubters, it doesn't get to me. I just play," Bridges said. "If I have a bad game, I talk to my family or my coaches or I get right into the gym and prepare for the next game. It'll make me work harder in practice. I'll get into the gym even longer.

"I don't like being doubted," Bridges said. "But, it pushes me to play even harder and get even more out of my game. So, in a way, maybe it's worth it."

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