7:00 PM EST, FS1 – Line: Villanova -1.5, Over/Under: 145.5
Big East supremacy is on the line tonight at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio as the top-ranked Villanova Wildcats face off with the fifth-ranked Xavier Musketeers for the second time this season. In one of the more chaotic years in recent memory that has featured a virtual revolving door at the top of the Polls, Villanova (24-3, 13-1, 1st in Big East) may have finally brought a sense of stability as they trek forward to their third consecutive week atop the rankings. And at this point, it would be considered a significant surprise if they were to lose their grip on No. One considering the remainder of their conference schedule. After tonight’s rematch with Xavier, Jay Wright’s charges finish up the regular season slate against the likes of Marquette (17-10), DePaul (8-18), and Georgetown (14-14), hardly a murderer’s row of opposition. In fact, those three teams currently occupy the eighth- ninth, and seventh places in the much lighter Big East, combining for a dreadful conference record of 15-28. And for what it’s worth, the Wildcats won each of their previous meetings against each team, brutalizing the first two by a combined fifty-two points, before edging out the Hoyas in a 55-50 victory. Of course, they’re going to have to dispose of the Musketeers for the second time in roughly two months, and given the setting of tonight’s matchup, Wright and Co. can likely expect far more resistance than they met in December 31st’s 95-64 thumping at the Pavilion. In an early, New Year’s Eve matchup that quickly devolved into a seriously one-sided affair, the hosts absolutely demolished the visiting side, pouncing on them in the first half en route to a commanding 48-30 lead at Halftime. The home side piled it on over the final twenty minutes, outscoring their conference foes by thirteen in that span, in what would be Xavier’s worst defeat of the campaign. It wasn’t quite the 1985 Wildcats over the Hoyas in the National Championship, but it was damn close; Villanova shot a white-hot 63.2% from the field, including a staggering 23-of-32 from within the three-point arc (71.9%), and a blistering 13-of-25 from beyond it (52.0%). To give you an idea of just how lopsided this encounter was, ‘Nova outscored their beleaguered opponent by eighteen points in the paint, and twenty-one points from downtown, and actually registered more assists (twenty-five) than the Musketeers had field goals (twenty). All in all, each of Wright’s five starters ended the day in double-figures, led by Senior Guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who was simply unconscious with twenty-seven points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field (52.6%), including a whopping 7-of-14 from long range (50.0%), along with eight assists and a pair of steals. Wright’s starters alone outscored the visitor’s team as a whole by thirteen points. Winners of seven straight, the Wildcats have clearly proven to be the class of the Big East, ranking towards the summit of the league in a plethora of categories on both ends of the court. Offensively, they rank second in scoring (75.5), fourth in three-point shooting (34.2%), and first in field goal percentage (46.3%), two-point field goal percentage (54.5%), and free-throw percentage (81.3%), while defensively they have paced the Big East in points allowed (63.1), opponents’ field goal percentage (39.4%) and two-point field goal percentage (42.6%). Furthermore, no team in the conference has seen the opposition shoot fewer free-throws against them (247), providing further evidence of their focus on the defensive end. Anyone who attempts to chide them for their conference’s overall lack of quality needs to stop right now, for they competed against -ranked Oklahoma on a neutral court, before traveling to -ranked Virginia a week later, with other encounters with the likes of Stanford, Georgia Tech, and Nebraska to boot. With a litany of upperclassmen, balance inside and outside, and a solid Backcourt (Josh Hart and Arcidiacono combine 28.6 points, 5.8 assists, and 2.4 steals), this could very well be the year that Villanova puts together a prolonged run into March.
Meanwhile, it’s not like Xavier (24-3, 12-3, 2nd in Big East) is a group of chumps, for since their embarrassing defeat on New Year’s Eve, they have won twelve out of fourteen contests, including each of their last three outings. Chris Mack’s charges easily cruised to victory in those instances, winning by an average of 15.3 points per game, with the most recent being an 88-70 pounding of Georgetown. The Musketeers stormed into the Verizon Center, taking advantage of the reeling Hoyas, who had lost three straight. What was a close game at Halftime (35-33) turned into a blowout in the second half, as the visiting side outscored the hosts 53-37 over the final twenty minutes of play. The visitors caught fire from the field, shooting 53.8% from the field, with the majority of their production coming in the paint, where they shredded Georgetown on 25-of-35 shooting (71.4%). However, the biggest difference in the encounter had to be from the charity stripe, where Xavier was clearly the more aggressive side. There would be no home whistles for John Thompson III’s crew, who despite netting 10-of-14 from the stripe (71.4%), were outscored by nineteen points in that regard, as the Musketeers connected on a whopping 29-of-31 attempts (93.5%). Sophomore Guard Edmond Summer led the way with twenty-two points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field (66.7%), while making all nine of his free-throws. Trevon Bluiett added another thirteen points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), to go along with five rebounds, two assists, and a steal. The Bench was a big story in Saturday’s victory, as Mack’s reserves accounted for thirty-two points, with twenty-six of that total attributed to J.P. Macura (twelve points) and James Farr (fourteen points). Like their opponent tonight, this is one of the better offensive teams in the country, ranking atop the Big East in scoring (78.9), free-throws made (274) and attempted (370), and assists (16.2), along with second in field goal percentage (45.5%). The aforementioned Bluiett (15.7 points) and Summer (11.1 points) are dynamic, aggressive Guards that get attack the lanes and reach the charity stripe with regularity (9.3 attempted together), while Jaylon Reynolds and the aforementioned Farr provide the dirty work in the paint. Depth is a real key here, as Mack’s rotation goes nine deep, with six different players averaging at least 9.0 points per game, and just as many logging an assist. However, as good as they’ve been offensively, that depth and athleticism has not translated to the defensive end, where they have yielded the sixth-most points in conference play (72.4), along with the most second-most field goals (383), and the most three-point field goals (120). It’s really a matter of tempo, as Mack urges his team to speed the game up, which in turn affords a wealth of opportunities for the opposition; no team has seen more shots attempted against them in league play than the Musketeers, who allow an average of 61.8 field goal attempts per game. And sometimes, they prove to be the architect of their own demise, as the constant pushing of tempo causes them to be rather careless with the ball; Mack and Co. have committed the fourth-most turnovers in conference play (197), which is exactly as many as they’ve been able to force. And when you speed the other guys up, yet can’t control the rock yourself, you’re going to run into problems, which was the case against Villanova. As poor as Xavier was defensively against the Wildcats in their previous meeting, they couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end, shooting just 39.2% from the field, including 14-of-32 from within the three-point arc (43.8%) and 6-of-19 from beyond it (31.6%). Nineteen turnovers completely derailed whatever they could have built offensively, putting them at even more of a disadvantage. To prevent a repeat of that debacle, Mack’s charges simply must take better care of the basketball, for against a team that makes every possession count, they can’t afford to throw opportunities away.