4:30 PM EST, FOX – Line: Villanova -1, Over/Under: 165
A crucial Big East battle highlights this weekend in College Basketball, as the Third-Ranked Villanova Wildcats look to stop the bleeding against the surging Fourth-Ranked Xavier Musketeers, in the second leg of their annual meeting, this time from Cintas Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a team that has dominated the Big East like few have in the long, storied history of the conference, Villanova (23-3, 10-3 in Big East) sure has had a rough stretch of late, dropping two out of their last three outings, which has put their attempt at a fifth-consecutive league title in peril heading into tonight’s huge showdown with the Xavier. Ten days ago, the Top-Ranked Wildcats took their first loss in nine games in a shocking 79-75 upset at home to St. John’s, whom despite shocking Duke in a similar manner prior to that meeting, sat at the bottom of the Big East with just two wins. In defense of Jay Wright, he and his charges were short-handed, with both Eric Paschall (10.0 PTS, 51.8% FG, 31.0% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.8 BLK) and Phil Booth (11.6 PTS, 49.0% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.2 STL) sidelined with respective injuries. Without the pair of Juniors, the ‘Cats depth proved to be seriously taxed, with the hosts circling the drain offensively, shooting just 41.8% from the field, all the while laying enough bricks from beyond the arc to build a castle, netting a dismal 8-of-33 Three-Pointers (24.2%). Granted, Jalen Brunson (19.8 PTS, 54.2% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 4.7 AST, 0.8 STL) kept things close with a game-high Twenty-Eight Points, but was far from efficient in doing so, knocking down just 8-of-21 Attempts (38.1%), while contributing heavily to his side’s woes from the long-range (2-of-11 3FG). Despite rebounding over the weekend with a convincing 86-75 victory over Butler, it was more of the same Wednesday Night at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, as the Fryers dealt them another disappointing defeat, 76-61. This was anything but a warm, Valentine’s Day affair for the visiting Wildcats, who were seemingly thwarted at every turn in their attempts to finally gain an advantage. Though they shot much better overall than they did against the Red Storm, the visiting side stunk it up once more from deep, draining a meager 3-of-20 Three-Pointers, which when you’re getting outrebounded (34-36), particularly on the offensive end (4-11) leads to a number of wasted possessions. Now take all those failed opportunities and couple them with a staggering Nineteen Turnovers, and you can see that Wright has a problem on his hands. Hell, Villanova had Ten more Turnovers than they had Assists (9), which is NOT a recipe for success. It’s a fairly dramatic turn for a team that sits atop the Big East in a slew of offensive categories, and by a comfortable margin at that, including Points (88.2), Field Goal Percentage (51.4%), Two-Point Percentage (62.4%), and Turnovers (9.8), all of which lend credence to their remarkable. However, as has been the case throughout their run of dominance in the Big East, they rely heavily on the Money Ball, at times to a fault. ‘Nova leads the league in both Three-Pointers Made (11.2) and Attempted (28.8), while outscoring their opponents on this regard by a staggering 11.1 Points per Game. Of the eight players that comprise their man Rotation, all but two of them shoot over 39.0% from distance, with Mikal Bridges (16.5 PTS, 49.0% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 5.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.2 BLK), Donte DiVincenzo (14.0 PTS, 48.3% FG, 39.0% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 3.0 ASt, 1.3 STL), and the aforementioned Brunson having nailed over Fifty Treys apiece. With that said, this is an area in which they’ve really missed Booth’s presence, for while not being nearly as prolific as his fellow teammates, he has been a dead-eye marksman on a blistering 40-of-93 shooting (43.0%). The Junior was having a career campaign before he suffered a fracture in his Shooting Hand back in their first meeting with Providence on January 24th, and isn’t expected to return until early March. One of those indispensable Role Players that never quite gets the credit they deserve, yet their team can’t do without, look no further than when he and his teammates locked horns with Xavier earlier in the term for proof of his value; when these teams met back on January 10th at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, the Wildcats effectively ran their rivals out of the arena, shooting a ridiculous 55.2% overall, including 12-of-31 from Three (38.7%), with the aforementioned Booth scoring a game-high Twenty-One Points largely on his exploits from beyond the arc, where he shot a stellar 5-of-8 (62.5%).
Meanwhile, this is turning out to be quite the run for Xavier (24-3, 12-2 in Big East), who at No. 4 in the AP Poll is enjoying their highest ranking in school history, while early preliminary NCAA Tournament Ranking (which were released last Sunday) have them earning one of the precious four No. One Seeds. Since dropping back-to-back outings back in early January, the Musketeers have won nine consecutive contests, with their most recent being a one-sided 102-90 hammering of sliding Seton Hall at Cintas Center in Cincinnati. The hosts jumped all over the Pirates early taking a 20-Point lead into Intermission, a margin that wouldn’t come close to relinquishing. Chris Mack’s charges were locked into the zone throughout the night, shooting a white-hot 53.6% from the field, including 14-of-29 from downtown (48.3%), while taking up residence at the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down a prolific 28-of-35 Free-Throws. The Player of the Game was easily Trevon Bluiett (19.6 PTS, 46.0% FG, 44.3% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.7 STL), who exploded for Thirty-Seven Points, despite only needing to take a dozen shots to get there. The Senior Guard out of Indianapolis, netted 8-of-12 attempts from the field (66.6%), with all eight of those Makes coming from beyond the arc, while also knocking down all thirteen of his Free-Throw Attempts. Of course, this was quite the turnaround for Bluiett, who just last weekend endured arguably his worst performance as a collegiate athlete, scoring just Six Points on a miserable 3-of-9 shooting in a narrow 72-71 victory at Creighton. It speaks to the veteran’s resolve that after such a poor showing that he was able to come out and nearly reach a career-high in points, made all the more important as his team looks to keep pace with tonight’s opponent Villanova. Odds are that he’ll probably make some history before the end of the season too, for after Wednesday’s victory, Bluiett (2,114 Career Points) stands just Eighteen Points away from David West for Second Place on the School’ All-Time Scoring List, while needing just seven more Three-Pointers to become Xavier’s All-Time Leader in Three-Pointers. However, the Musketeers are going to need a similar performance if they are in fact going to create some more distance between themselves and the Wildcats, who certainly remain in striking distance at 1.5 Games back in the Big East Standings. Bluiett though, has not performed well against them, losing all but one of their eight meetings, including each of the last three affairs, the most recent being the aforementioned 89-65 drubbing, which coincidentally perpetuated their current run of success. It was just another disappointing showing from the veteran Guard, who managed just Eleven Points on 4-of-12 shooting from the field (33.3%), including 2-of-7 from downtown (28.6%), along with Four Rebounds, and a pair of Assists. Over the course of his career, Bluiett has averaged just 7.9 Points on a woeful 28.8% shooting, including 22.6% from Three against the Wildcats. Again, Mack and Co. are going need much more than that tonight. One area where they can build upon against their rivals is at the Charity stripe, where no team in the Big East has been as prolific or effective as the Musketeers; these kids have attempted a league-high 23.6 Free-Throws per Game, while pacing the entire nation in Free-Throws Made with 18.7 per Game, or in other words, they’ve managed to outscore their opponents by 181 Points in that regard (6.7 P/G). By being the more aggressive team and getting to the Free-Throw Line, the hosts should be able to control the tempo of the game more to their liking, which would prevent ‘Nova from getting out into Transition where they can drain so many Three-Pointers. If they can slow the game down, then Xavier’s physicality could really prove to be the difference, particularly on the glass where they’ve been one of the best in the country, averaging 38.4 Rebounds per Game (24th Overall), including 28.9 of the defensive variety (9th Overall), which is important because Defensive Rebounds lead to opportunities in Transition for themselves.