‘Nova sets sights on Big East tournament title



Larry Flynn

Although Santa and his reindeer might disagree, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

That’s right, folks, it’s March.

If you are a college basketball fan, there is no better month than March. There will be dozens of buzzer-beaters, busted brackets and multiple conference tournament champions.

And, by Saturday night, there will be only one Big East Tournament Champion.

The Big East Tournament has its fair share of history. Since 1980, some of the toughest teams in college basketball have competed to hold that final trophy, to solidify their place in the big dance as one of the top 60+ teams in the entire nation. 

Beginning in 1983, this ultimate competition has been held at the Mecca of basketball: Madison Square Garden. Chris Mullin and Lou Carnesecca’s St. John’s team won in 1983, followed by back-to-back wins from Georgetown and MVP trophies for Patrick Ewing. 

Although Georgetown won the tournament in 1985, we all know who ended up winning the national championship. Led by Ed Pinckney, the Villanova Wildcats won their first and only NCAA Championship. 

Despite Villanova’s storied history, the Wildcats have only won the entire Big East Tournament once. Against Ray Allen’s UConn Huskies, Kerry Kittles and the 1995 Wildcats dominated at “The Garden,” beating the Huskies 94-78.

Villanova returned to the championship game just two years later but lost to Boston College by 12.

Since then, Villanova has had its fair share of successful teams. Yet the Wildcats have been unable to return to “the promised land” and win the Big East Tournament. 

Now might be their chance. 

Coming off a 29-2 season and regular season Big East title, the Wildcats are on a roll after defeating St. John’s, 105-68. 

There has been something different about this Wildcats team than years in the past. Perhaps it’s the words “ATTITUDE” written on masking tape on the locker room door. Maybe it is the good karma on the 30th anniversary of the 1985 National Championship team.

Most likely, however, this Villanova team is unique because it is a disciplined, talented, veteran team that is hungry to prove their doubters wrong. 

Led by the Big East Player of the Year favorite, Darrun Hilliard, the Wildcats have a plethora of weapons that make them a lethal opponent. Hilliard, who has excelled as the go-to scorer this season, has led the potent Wildcat attack throughout the season. 

Hilliard hasn’t been the lone alpha-dog on this Villanova team. Senior JayVaughn Pinkston has bruised his way into the conversation of top low-post scorers in the nation, and has recorded multiple game-winning blocks.

Down low, Daniel Ochefu’s improvement into a double-double machine has opened up the perimeter for the Wildcats’ three-point barrage. Ryan Arcidiacono found his shooting stroke during conference play, Dylan Ennis has recorded a career-high in points per game, and Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Phil Booth have all impressed in significant minutes off the bench.

It would seem that Villanova should win the Big East Tournament this year based on their regular season performance and momentum heading into March.

Not so fast.

The reorganized, rejuvenated Big East has been one of the most impressive conferences nationwide. The conference ranks second amongst opposing conferences in RPI this season (behind only the Big 12), and has winning records against the “mighty” ACC (7-2), Big Ten (7-5) and AAC (4-1). Against the Big 12 (1-2), SEC (4-5), and Pac 12 (2-2), the Big East has recorded roughly a .500 win percentage.

Except for the four teams that play in the first round, every Big East team is expected to make the NCAA Tournament. Georgetown is currently second in the conference, followed by Butler, Providence, St. John’s and Xavier.

Georgetown’s most impressive game of the season was their 20-point blowout over Villanova. Butler asserted its dominance early in the season, beating then fifth-ranked North Carolina. Providence defeated Notre Dame early in the season. The Irish would later edge their way into the top 10. 

To rephrase: the Big East has been in the conversation for the best conference in the NCAA all season long.

Villanova, however, has seemed to crack the code on how to beat these Big East teams. They have beaten every team in the conference at least once, only losing to Seton Hall in overtime and suffering an uncharacteristic loss to Georgetown. 

The Wildcats should be scared of no one. 

Past their first-round matchup, Villanova will face off against either St. John’s or Providence. Villanova has blown out both of these teams this season, Providence on Senior Night and St. John’s last Saturday. 

As dominant as the Wildcats have been against both of these opponents, their potential opponent will not go down without a fight.

First, let’s consider Providence. Led by Kris Dunn and La’Dontae Henton, the Friars boast one of the most talented backcourts in the country. Dunn is considered to be the most NBA-ready prospect in the conference, and Henton averages 20.5 points per game and scored 38 points against Notre Dame earlier in the season. 

These two guards will test Villanova’s perimeter defense. Given Head Coach Jay Wright’s defensive scheme to switch on picks, the Villanova big men could find themselves matched up along the perimeter with these two lethal scoring threats. In addition, the Friars’ developing  bigs have continued to improve this season and given Head Coach Ed Cooley another dimension.

Let’s not forget about St. John’s, however. Villanova trailed by double-digits early on against St. John’s on Saturday, and made its second-half push as the Red Storm started to wear down. After all, the Johnnies were playing without Chris Obekpa, their shot-blocking extraordinaire, and Jamal Branch, a seasoned guard scorer.

In addition, St. John’s will be playing on its home court at Madison Square Garden, and had won four games in a row before losing to Villanova on Saturday.

Past a potential matchup with either Providence or St. John’s, Villanova could take on any number of teams, most likely Georgetown, Butler, or Xavier. 

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Remember what happened last season? 

Villanova took on Seton Hall in a first round matchup, a potential matchup for the Wildcats this year as well. The ‘Cats came out of the gates sluggish, unfocused and flat-footed. The Pirates smelled blood, and a Sterling Gibbs game-winner elevated Seton Hall to the upset victory. 

This group of Wildcats has proven it can win in the regular season. 

In the postseason? Not yet.

This could be the year, however. This could be the year that Villanova reclaims its first Big East Tournament championship en route to snatching an NCAA tournament championship in early April.How will the Wildcats prove their doubters and their history wrong?

The first key for Villanova is simple: keep doing what they’ve been doing. The Wildcats must continue their strong defense, their balanced offensive attack, and their commitment to hustle. 

The Wildcats, however, can make a few adjustments come tournament time. Throughout the season, Wright has placed a greater emphasis on feeding Pinkston and Ochefu in the post. If the game becomes tight, or if the guards are not hitting their perimeter shots, then the dynamic upperclassmen duo down low can help to alleviate the pressure placed on the guards.

Villanova’s guards, however, will be led by Hilliard, who needs to prove that he can carry this team if need be. Last year, we saw the success of UConn due to the dominant play of Shabazz Napier. 

Hilliard is a different type of guard that Napier, but he certainly can be the game-changer that the Wildcats can lean come time for the NCAA Tournament. He showed us a glimpse of his ability to carry the ‘Cats to victory with a career-high 31 points on the road against Butler, including a game-winner.

“Bethlehem Steel” can show us more of his individual dominance when the Wildcats need him during the Big East Tournament. 

It might be the toughest task Villanova has faced this season, but this team is capable of winning the Big East Tournament. 

If the 2014-15 Wildcats want to cement their legacy among the Pavillion rafters, they can start by adding a Big East Tournament Champions banner next to the 1995 banner.