Jay Wright has never won a Big East Tournament since coaching in the conference and Villanova's only moment of glory at Madison Square Garden is almost two-decades old now. In the last real Big East Tournament (at least, as we know it), the Wildcats would like to have a chance to cut down the nets. Standing in their way tomorrow night will be the Louisville Cardinals.
Rick Pitino is no stranger himself to the Big East's Manhattanite March tradition. He cut his teeth as an assistant at Syracuse in the late-1970s, then brought Providence College up from an 11-20 team and brought them to the 1987 Final Four — and after returning to the Big East fold with his Louisville program, he took the trophy twice, in 2009 and 2012.
Pitino is a coaching legend; a winner. The Big East Tournament is a showcase for winners.
"At Villanova, everyone comes to the Big East tournament, and even when we lose, they stay," head coach Jay Wright explained.
"Jim Boeheim will never admit it, but he's a little sentimental. I know he is. This is really big to us. If not for the Big East, Rollie Massimino's not Rollie Massimino. Villanova's not Villanova."
The Cardinals are now ranked number-four in the nation, but on January 22, when Pitino's team was the fifth-ranked basketball program in the nation, the Wildcats were the better team; winning 73-64. Despite the smothering Louisville press, Villanova battled and held things together.
"If you're going to play in the Big East, you have to know that if you're not up to the battle, you're not even in the game."
This isn't the same Louisville team that showed up at the Wells Fargo Center in January, however.
"They've gotten better as a team...they're very, very efficient now. They're too good, man," Wright said. "They've got a shot at winning the national championship, they really do."
The Cardinals average 74 points on an offense driven by Russ Smith, Chane Behanan and big man Gorgui Dieng lately. Smith has been their top scorer with 17.9 points on average, while Behanan has averaged 10.4. Dieng has averaged 10.3 ppg and scored 10 points and grabbed 9 rebounds against Villanova in January. Since then, he has been playing at an even higher level, rebounding and knocking down an 18-foot jumper with some consistency.
Dieng will be a tough match-up for Mouphtaou Yarou, who will have to contain him. Yarou himself is coming off of a monster game himself, scoring 18 points on 9-10 shooting against St. John's.
Peyton Siva has also been key for Louisville, as the point guard that runs their fast-paced offense. Luke Hancock, a George Mason transfer who has a history with Villanova from his two years in Northern Virginia, adds an experienced "rock" to the Cardinals' line-up as well.
"Luke Hancock for them is like Tony Chennault for us," Wright parallelled. "You add him to Siva and Dieng, they're outrageous."
Villanova will need to protect the ball against the Louisville press and defend against their speedy offensive sets like they did in January. This still isn't an opponent that will bring a very big threat from beyond the perimeter, so the Wildcats' struggles on defense won't likely to be an issue.
What might be an issue is a Villanova team that played on Wednesday night using just seven players for the vast majority of minutes. Achraf Yacoubou stayed glued to the bench, while Mislav Brzoja and Maurice Sutton played just one minute each. The 'Cats might need to use a deeper rotation if they're going to stay fresh enough to keep up with the Cards, or to make a run to Saturday's Final.