Thursday, February 9, 2017

Villanova faces tough three-game road stretch in Big East play

                                                         Photo Credit: Geno Green

In the Big East conference, no game can be chalked up as an automatic win.

The No. 2 Villanova Wildcats are the perfect example as to why each game, regardless of the opponent’s record matters.

After letting a 15-point slip away in the second half in a 74-72 loss to the unranked Marquette Golden Eagles on Jan. 24 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the Wildcats responded with four straight wins, but face their toughest stretch in conference play with three straight games away from the Philadelphia area.

The slate begins on Saturday with a meeting at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati against No. 24 Xavier, a team it handled 79-54 on Jan. 10, but could not conquer on the road last season. The then-No. 5 Musketeers handed the Wildcats one of two losses in league play with a 90-83 loss, behind 19 points from J.P. Macura off the bench.

Villanova coach Jay Wright sees the road game at Xavier as more of an opportunity, than a revenge factor.

“It’s the same in regards to the opponent, regardless of who won or lost before,” Wright said in Thursday’s Big East teleconference. “Everyone in Philly has such great respect for our program and we play against a program with such a historical tradition, such as Xavier, it is always a big game. More because they are really good and much more because of what happened in the previous meeting.”

After the Xavier game, Villanova faces its second stanza of two games in three days in conference play as it travels to Rosemont, IL, to play a reeling DePaul team at 1-10 in league play on Feb. 13.

The Wildcats have won the last 12 meetings in the series, but in a 68-65 win against the Blue Demons in the Big East opener on Dec. 28, 2016, gave them all they could handle. Josh Hart led the way with 25 points and Jalen Brunson added 13 points and a game-high six assists.

Defending conference tournament champion Seton Hall rounds out Villanova’s road slate on Feb. 18. The Wildcats handled the Pirates 76-46 on Jan. 16, behind a balanced effort with five players in double figures, led by Kris Jenkins’ 16 points, on 4-of-6 from long range.

The three-game road stretch will also put Villanova’s seven-man rotation to the test in terms of endurance with Phil Booth’s absence this season. Wright does not worry much about endurance as he has scaled back on the length of practices.

“Our practices have been a lot different this season with a lot more shorter practices given our rotation,” Wright said. “We don’t even have ten guys to go 5-on-5 with, so I have been proud our assistants and their creativity. Our players’ abilities to focus on breakdown drills and not get as much 5-on-5 in there and we will try to do the same this weekend.”

With the Big East and NCAA Tournaments a little over a month away, Villanova’s grit will be tested in more ways than one, as it looks to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Florida in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.

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