2:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: -, Over/Under:
A Big East battle helps bring Rivalry Week to a close as the Second-Ranked Villanova Wildcats travel to Cintas Center to face off against the Twenty-Fourth-Ranked Xavier Musketeers. This is the second meeting between these league rivals, and if Villanova (23-2, 10-2 in Big East) has their way, it will be a season sweep that helps establish some space between them in the conference rankings. With just over a month to go before the NCAA Tournament, the reigning National Champions certainly appear to be one of the favorites, particularly given their wealth of experience. In a day and age in which few big programs have the luxury of keeping a core group of players together for longer than one season, Jay Wright has done a remarkable job of maintaining this veteran-laden unit that features a rotation comprised almost exclusively of Seniors and Juniors. Tourney heroes such as Josh Hart (19.2 PTS, 51.4% FG, 40.6% 3FG, 6.6 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.5 STL) and Kris Jenkins (13.0 PTS, 38.7% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.0 STL) have kept this ball bouncing for the Wildcats, particularly during league play in which they have combined for an average of 32.5 Points per Game, with both players shooting over 36.0% from beyond the arc, while helping set the tone defensively accounting for 2.7 steals. There are no two ways about it, Villanova is the most tenacious defensive team in the Big East, and it’s not even close; the ‘Cats have yielded a league-best 65.1 points (1st in Big East) on 41.4% shooting from the field (1st in Big East), including 48.1% from within the three-point arc (3rd in Big East) and 32.2% from beyond it (1st in Big East), all the while leading the conference in steals at 7.3 thefts per game (1st in Big East). Defense has also played a major role in their recent four-game winning streak since dropping just their second contest of the campaign, a narrow 74-72 defeat at Marquette back on January 24th. On that day, the visiting Wildcats struggled to slow down the Golden Eagles, who netted 50.0% of their attempts from the field, including 9-of-19 from downtown (47.4%), while Wright’s outfit couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean from deep, clanking all but six of their staggering thirty-four three-pointers (17.6%). In the four victories since, ‘Nova has allowed their opponents to score just 64.8 points, limiting Georgetown to sixty-four in Tuesday’s 75-64 victory. This one was pretty much over at Halftime, as the Champs headed into the midway point leading the Hoyas 43-28, en route to relegating the visiting side 43.6% shooting from the field, while outworking them on the glass (31-27) and totaling seven steals. The aforementioned Hart practically carried the offense, scoring a game-high twenty-five points on 8-of-18 shooting from the floor (44.4%), including 4-of-9 from three (44.4%), along with seven rebounds, three assists, and a pair of steals. When these teams met at The Pavilion back on January 10th, the hosts absolutely hammered the visiting Musketeers in a 79-54 romp, that featured a forty-five point Second Half for the Wildcats. Both Hart and Jenkins poured in twenty points apiece, accounting for all but two of their team’s eight treys. With that said, the difference in the contest was Villanova’s prowess inside the three-point line, where they pounded Xavier, connecting on twenty of their twenty-eight attempts (71.4%) compared to a miserable 11-of-26 from their opponent (42.3%).
Meanwhile, even though they were blown out in their previous meeting with the defending champions, don’t expect Xavier (18-6, 8-3 in Big East) to show fear tonight, for the great thing about Rivalry Week is that no matter no matter how high a giant may be ranked, they can still be slayed with but a stroke. Now, don’t misunderstand us, for we’re certainly not equating the Musketeers to David in that classic tale, for Chris Mack’s charges are more than capable of handing Villanova their third defeat of the season. After all, when the Wildcats last traveled to Cintas Center, they were on the wrong end of a 90-83 upset, their last before cutting down the nets in last year’s NCAA Tournament Final. On that day, the hosts took the fight to the eventual league champions, shooting 50.0% from the field, while getting physical in the paint where they netted 23-of-42 attempts (54.8%). You want an accurate representation as to who was the tougher team? Look no further than their respective performances at the charity stripe, where Xavier knocked down twenty-three of their thirty-three attempts (69.7%) in comparison to 11-of-13 for Villanova (84.6%), translating to a decisive twelve-point advantage for the home side. Indeed, that performance sounds like a complete 180 compared to their earlier meeting this season, where the X-Men could only muster an embarrassing 29.3% shooting from the field. Stars Trevon Bluiett (18.6 PTS, 44.6% FG, 38.2% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.0 STL) and Edmond Sumner (15.0 PTS, 47.9% FG, 4.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.3 STL), who were each major components in last year’s upset, were virtually invisible in this particular contest, scoring a combined twenty-one points on a dismal 5-of-25 shooting from the field (20.0%), including a shocking 2-of-11 from inside the three-point arc (18.2%). These guys actually had more turnovers (seven) than they had field goals (five), adding further insult to what has easily been the team’s worst performance this season. It was an uncharacteristic showing for a team that has been one of the better offensive teams in the Big East, for the Musketeers have averaged 77.5 points (2nd in Big East) on 46.5% shooting from the field (4th in Big East), including 53.0% from within the three-point arc (3rd in Big East) and 34.4% from beyond it (7th in Big East), while dishing out 15.2 assists (3rd in Big East), and taking good care of the basketball in the process committing 13.1 turnovers (3rd in Big East). Though they’re far from a dangerous three-point shooting team, Mack’s charges are prolific when it comes to getting to the Free-throw Line, where they lead the conference in Free-Throws (19.0) and Free-Throw Attempts (27.8), with Sumner alone going to the line over eight times per outing. Getting to the Stripe goes a long way towards establishing a desired tempo, and in many ways can be an effective form of defense in it’s own right, for it’s impossible for a team to get out in transition when they are inbounding the ball after a made single. Like Villanova, Xavier has four straight contests since falling in defeat in late January, dispatching hapless DePaul in their latest outing to the tune of 72-61. The Musketeers welcomed the Blue Demons quite rudely Wednesday Night, feasting off of seventeen turnovers as the aforementioned Bluiett led the way with twenty points on 8-of-18 shooting from the field (44.4%), including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%), along with seven rebounds and an assist. We can’t underscore more how important this game is for these guys, who trail ‘Nova by 1.5 games in the Big East Rankings.