Wildcats set to face off against two of the best in the Big East

Michael Zipf

The Comeback Kids

Down 21 with eight minutes left in the second half against LSU – no problem. Down 16 against DePaul – piece of cake. Down five at half against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome – no challenge. Throughout the ’07-’08 season, the Wildcats have demonstrated a distinct resiliency that has helped erase large deficits and turn potential losses into key victories. As Head Coach Jay Wright stated in the team’s recent victory over DePaul, “I think it is known that all of us have that confidence with this team this year. We are never out of a game, and that is what is so big about coming back in the LSU game last month.”

Irish Not so Lucky?

As the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame invade the Wachovia Center, the luck of the Irish could face a daunting task as the Wildcats carry a 10-game home winning streak that dates back to last season. After obliterating the Irish by 25 points at the Pavilion last season, the Wildcats should expect a more highly contested matchup. Although Notre Dame recently suffered a crushing 85-64 defeat at the hands of the No. 6 Georgetown Hoyas, the Irish have demonstrated strong play throughout the early parts of the season, with key victories over Connecticut, West Virginia and Cincinnati.

The return of junior point guard Kyle McAlarney, who missed a majority of last season due to an off-court incident, has helped supplant the losses of All-Big East performers Colin Falls and Russell Carter. McAlarney, who is second on the team in scoring, provides the Irish with a savvy point guard who is a deadly outside shooter. Due to McAlarney’s absence last season, sophomore guard Tory Jackson emerged as an integral player, especially during Notre Dame’s run to the NCAA tournament. This season, Jackson has continued his stellar performance, averaging a team-high 5.4 assists per game. In order for the Wildcats to mitigate Notre Dame’s offensive attack, which ranks 45th in the nation at 78.6 points per game, containing Jackson and McAlarney will be imperative.

However, Villanova’s biggest matchup problem may lie in the frontcourt, where the Irish are fifth in the nation in rebounding margin. The Irish possess a strong frontcourt with forwards Rob Kurz and Luke Harangody, who are averaging 8.1 and 9.5 rebounds per game, respectively, commanding the interior. At 6-foot-8-inches and 250 pounds, Harangody has manhandled the opposition in the post, recording a team-high 18.9 points per game. In order to contain Harangody, expect the Wildcats to throw a barrage of defenders at the sensational sophomore, with Dante Cunningham and Antonio Peña primarily defending the burly forward.

The X-factor for the Irish could be local Philly native and one-time Wright recruit Ryan Ayers, who ranks among the top 3-point shooters in the nation, shooting a blistering 47 percent from beyond the arc. On the season, Villanova opponents are connecting on close to 40 percent of their long-range attempts.

On the offensive end, the Wildcats will face a stringent Notre Dame defense that ranks 25th in the nation in defensive-field goal percentage. Last year, sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds notched a game-high 27 points against the Irish, connecting on 75 percent of his shots from the field. Expect Reynolds to continue his strong play as he enters this matchup averaging 23 points per game in his career against the Irish.

A revamped Villanova starting lineup has benefited from the insertion and emergence of red-shirt freshman Antonio Peña. Peña has helped solidify a Villanova frontcourt that was facing a difficult time in the offensive and defensive glass with the absence of Casiem Drummond. Since his arrival on the starting lineup, Peña has averaged 13 points per game and 6.5 rebounds. In order for the Wildcats to secure a victory, Peña, along with junior quad-captain Cunningham, will have to continue to provide solid interior defense and effective post play. Ultimately, expect the Wildcats to continue to extend their home winning streak to 11 games with Villanova’s guards driving to the basket and the frontcourt mitigating Notre Dame’s interior attack.

Villanova 87, Notre Dame 82

Pitted Against a Tough Task

The last time a team defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers at home was two years ago. That team was Villanova, whose four-guard attack befuddled the Panthers that afternoon. However, expect the Wildcats to stay with a bigger lineup that has provided the ‘Cats with recent success.

The Panthers offensive attack relies on two sensational forwards Sam Young, who is finally beginning to reach the potential that coaches and scouts raved about, and freshman DeJuan Blair. Their first matchup this season at the Pavilion featured a heavyweight battle between the two teams, with Villanova capturing a nail biting last second 64-63 victory. During the matchup, Blair dominated the boards, collecting a game-high 15 rebounds, along with 12 points. Young, who produced a team-high 16 points in the first contest, has continued his stellar play, averaging over 20 points and five rebounds per game in the last week. Young, a versatile forward, possesses deft driving and leaping abilities along with an improved outside jump shot. Expect junior Shane Clark, an experienced all-around defender, to match up with Young. In their victory over Pittsburgh earlier this year, the Wildcats attempted 24 free throws, connecting on 75 percent of them. The X-factor for the Wildcats this game will be freshman Malcolm Grant, who recorded a career-high 22 points in the teams’ previous matchup. Expect Head Coach Jamie Dixon to focus on guarding Grant.

Although the Wildcats hold a distinct advantage in the backcourt, with Pittsburgh missing its two premier backcourt players in Levance Fields and Mike Cook due to season-ending injuries, this matchup will ultimately be determined in the paint. Whether Villanova’s frontcourt will be able to control the glass and contain the Panthers’ strong and slashing forwards remains to be seen. Expect a highly contested battle, but the Panther’s home-court dominance will prevail in the end.

Pittsburgh 67, Villanova 64.