SAN ANTONIO — They convened once a week during the offseason, a dedicated coach and determined player, putting in extra time after practice as they dreamed of reaching the Final Four.
The additional work, however, didn't take place on the basketball court.
It happened at Whole Foods.
On any given night throughout the spring and summer of 2017, Villanova's Omari Spellman could be spotted wandering the aisles of the healthy grocery store chain as strength coach John Shackleton zigzagged in front of him, loading Spellman's cart with prepared meals that would help the then-300-pounder transform his body.
"I can't stress enough how much he helped me," Spellman said. "He's been invaluable."
So, too, has been Spellman himself during a magical 2017-18 season for Villanova, which could win its second NCAA title in three years by defeating Michigan in Monday's championship game at the Alamodome.
Now a svelte 245 pounds, Spellman is averaging 10.9 points on the season and 12.2 points during the NCAA tournament, with his most memorable performance coming in a 15-point, 13-rebound effort in Saturday's 95-79 stomping of No. 1 seed Kansas in the semifinals.
"If not for [Omari] and his development, we probably wouldn't be at this point," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Our guys, they've each improved, but not at the rate that Omari has."
That's the thing about Spellman. To truly appreciate his impact, you must first reflect on where he was just one year ago, a national top-20 recruit forced to missed the 2016-17 campaign after being deemed ineligible by the NCAA for academic reasons.
Mix in the weight issues that had hovered during high school, and even Spellman could understand why someone may question his level of dedication. He still remembers the day Wright called him into his office to inform him he was being forced to redshirt in 2016-17.
"It was extremely humbling," Spellman said, "because I'd never had to sit out. I look at it more now as a blessing in disguise.
"I grew up a lot during that year. My game matured a lot. I got better as a student, a basketball player, a person, a friend. I just learned so much."
The most noticeable strides by Spellman involved his appearance and physique.
Like many college freshmen, Spellman arrived at Villanova in the fall of 2016 with terrible eating habits. He said he loved Gummy Bears and would eat them by the bag. During meals, he would often shovel down food even when he was full.
"It'd get to a point where I wasn't eating because I was hungry anymore," he said. "I was eating because it tasted good."
A conversation with members of Villanova's coaching staff hit home for Spellman. They wanted him to drop weight, not only because it would help him on the court, but also because it would improve his life off it.
"They told me you can't be successful at any level past high school at 300 pounds," Spellman said. "They told me, ‘Beyond basketball, how do you want to be able to interact with your children, and your children's children?' That really hit home for me, because I don't want to be unhealthy for the rest of my life. It's something I really took pride in."
With Shackleton providing guidance, Spellman reshaped his diet. Fast food, candy and chips were replaced with salmon, tilapia, salads, pistachios and peanut butter.
Along with helping him shop at Whole Foods, Shackleton often accompanied Spellman to restaurants to give him tips on how to make his orders healthier. On weekdays, it wasn't uncommon for Shackleton to send a graduate assistant to Sweetgreen, a popular restaurant chain in Philly, to make Spellman a salad and deliver it to him before or after class.
"Everything with him was clockwork," Shackleton said. "I knew if he didn't eat for a while, he'd end up eating something bad because he'd be starving."
Shackleton also enrolled Spellman and some of his teammates in a Bikram yoga class. A form of hot yoga, the exercises are often performed in a room between 108 and 115 degrees with humidity between 40 and 60 percent.
"I had ups and downs," Spellman said, "but I eventually just had to come to terms with [the fact that] I have to be better for my teammates and coaches. I can't settle for being out of shape and overweight, just because I want to eat poorly or do irresponsible things, because that's not fair to my teammates. As someone who wants to be depended on, you can't have those uncertainties. I just had to stay with it."
Villanova's coaches and players are glad Spellman did.
Now, more than 50 pounds lighter, Spellman has blossomed into one of the most versatile post players in the country. He runs the court and handles the ball as well as any post player, which makes him a nightmare of a matchup for slower, plodding big men, such as 7-foot Kansas center Udoka Azubuike.
Spellman swished three three-pointers against the Jayhawks and is shooting a team-high 43.9 percent from long range this season. That'd be considered a high level of efficiency for any player—and almost unheard of for a 6'9 ½" redshirt freshman who wasn't even known as a shooter in high school.
"I was a decent shooter in high school," Spellman said, "but I didn't really work on the craft. I had the abilities; I was just raw. Our coaching staff has tightened up my technique. I'm more solid and disciplined, more refined. I could always shoot the ball, but it's different when you have to make decisions on where to shoot and when to shoot and things of that nature.
"I definitely worked on trying to get better in that area. Now I'd say it's definitely a strong suit of mine."
Spellman's prowess from long range provides even more balance for a potent Villanova offense that's averaging 86.8 points per contest while shooting 50.1 percent from the field. The Wildcats have won each of their five NCAA tournament games by double digits.
As gratifying as his improvements have been on the basketball court, Spellman is even more proud of what he's accomplished in the classroom. The same guy who was deemed ineligible for academic reasons dating back to high school made the Academic All-Big East team in 2016-17. Spellman said he was "a bit immature and undisciplined" before arriving at Villanova.
"When people hear you're an academic redshirt," Spellman said, they stigmatize you as unintelligent. "I always had the ability to be a good student. I just didn't have the natural [desire] to be a great student.
"People close to me stayed on me and didn't let me settle. To be able to get all-conference academic team really did a lot for my confidence, being able to prove to people that I'm an intelligent human being and that I'm not dumb."
Spellman credited Shackleton and academic support staff member Arleshia Davidson for continuing to motivate and encourage him throughout the past year. And he says he couldn't have picked a better coach to play for than Wright.
"He's been an unbelievable coach to me as far as helping me mature in a lot of ways," Spellman said. "He never lets me settle for where I am. He makes sure I stay on my path to get better."
Spellman has done just that.
And thanks to him, the Wildcats have, too.
"Omari is a big reason we're here today," senior guard Phil Booth said. "He knew he had an opportunity to be a big part of this team. He knew we were counting on him, and he didn't want to let us down. We're all proud of him.
"Hopefully, he's proud of himself, too."