PITTSBURGH – Omari Spellman already had signed with Villanova by the time he followed the Wildcats throughout their 2016 NCAA tournament run to the national championship.
"I was like a proud member supporting them," Spellman, the Cats' starting center and the Big East freshman of the year, said Wednesday. "It was cool to watch Kris [Jenkins], Josh [Hart], Darryl [Reynolds], D.O. [Daniel Ochefu]. I really look up to those guys, my big brothers. To see them go out there and compete at that level, it really set a good example for me."
Spellman and three of his fellow freshmen – guard Collin Gillespie and forwards Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels – will get their first moment in the NCAA spotlight Thursday night when the top-seeded Wildcats play their opening game in the East Region against Radford at PPG Paints Arena.
The freshmen have been in their share of big games, with Gillespie (Archbishop Wood) and Cosby-Roundtree (Neumann-Goretti) having won Pennsylvania state championships in high school. This, however, is a totally different stage, even if the players shrug off any suggestion that they'll be nervous when they take the floor.
"I don't really think I'll have nerves," Gillespie said. "I've played for so long at this point, I really don't have butterflies anymore. It's just basketball to me, and just another game that we have to focus on defending and rebounding and playing together."
"I don't think I will be nervous or anything because I'll be focusing on what I can do for my teammates," said Cosby-Roundtree. "I try to just be focused, dialed in on what we have to do so that I won't have to feel nervous."
The older players have talked to the younger players this week about coping with distractions, but there were some signs of nerves Tuesday at the Wildcats' practice at nearby Duquesne.
"I kind of sensed it at practice," coach Jay Wright said. "Collin Gillespie wasn't being his normal self, which is rare, nothing bad. I just thought they were a little distracted. I tell the older guys, keep an eye on them, keep talking to them.
"But I think the only remedy is they've got to get in a game. Once you get in an NCAA game, you get in there, it is really different than any other experience. You get in there, you feel it. Then I think when you come out of the game and you go back in the second time, you're good. But you've got to get in there and feel it."
Spellman enjoyed an excellent season, showing an unusual combination of accurate three-point shooting with shot-blocking ability in the paint. Gillespie, who missed eight games with a fractured bone in his left wrist, shot 39 percent from three-point range. Cosby-Roundtree, the first big man off the bench, was effective around the basket, hitting at a 77 percent rate.
Samuels, who was sidelined for 10 games with a broken left hand, played sparingly after Phil Booth returned to action on Feb. 21 as Wright played mostly an eight-man rotation.
The freshmen will play a key role in what the Wildcats hope will be a long run in the tournament, maybe even hit a game-winning shot to win it all, as Spellman used to imagine in the playground growing up.
"It's something you always dream of," he said. "To finally be here is incredible, but I can't really focus on those things. I've just got to focus on what got us here – playing hard, playing together, and defending and rebounding."