For the fourth straight year, the Villanova Wildcats will be playing in the Big East Championship game. The Wildcats will look to be the first team since Louisville did it in ‘12-’13 to win back-to-back Big East Championships (although the Cardinals recently had those wins vacated).
How They Got Here
The ‘Cats had a relatively easy walk in the park, defeating Marquette by 24 on Thursday and Butler by 19 on Friday. A monster second half and some hot shooting from Bridges and company allowed the ‘Cats to shoot 57% from the field, including 15 three-pointers. Bridges and Brunson combined for 46 points. Their momentum seemed to carry over the nearly 24 hour break as Bridges nailed a three-pointer seconds into the opening of the Butler game, and the ‘Cats opened on a 19-0 run. All the starters were in double digits in Friday’s game, and Omari Spellman logged another double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Providence Friars opened their Big East Tournament play with a thrilling 72-68 victory over Creighton in OT. A tip-in from Alpha Diallo with 13 seconds left sent the game to overtime and a missed three-pointer with seconds left from Creighton gave the victory to the Friars. The Friars couldn’t stay away from overtime as the found themselves in a battle against the one seed Xavier Musketeers. Xavier was leading by 17 points with 15 minutes left in the game but they came storming back and Rodney Bullock tied the game with 3 minutes left. JP Macura had a shot to win it in regulation but Bullock came up with a huge stuff that sent the game into overtime where the Friars would ultimately prevail.
They split the series 1-1 in the regular season with each team winning at home. The ‘Cats won by 20 at home in January after a sluggish start ultimately resulted in a 50 point second half and dominating performance. The match-up in Providence on Valentine’s Day was quite a different story and the Friars came out on top 76-71. The Wildcats could not hit the side of a barn from behind the arc, making a season-low 3 three-pointers. They committed a season-high 19 turnovers and had only 9 assists, one of their lowest numbers on the season. Oh yeah, and Booth was injured. Even with a bad performance all around, they found themselves still in the game in the final minutes but could not make enough shots to pull out the victory.
You can certainly argue that that game at the “Dunks” was a fluke. It was their worst three-point shooting performance on the season, they committed a season-high number of turnovers, uncharacteristically struggled to move the ball offensively, and Booth was sitting on the bench with a cast. However, the ‘Cats cannot brush aside this loss. The Friars came to play defensively and Cartwright and Bullock combined for 31 points. They are fresh off two OT wins, one of which against a potential number one seed in the tournament, the Friars are out to prove themselves and win their first championship since 2014.
What To Expect
Since their one point OT victory against the Pirates, Villanova has won their last three games by an average of 22 points. Jalen Brunson is, well, Jalen Brunson. Mikal Bridges is averaging just shy of 23 points in his last 4 games and Brunson is averaging 19 points in the Big East Tournament. If Villanova is going to win they need to start off fast and keep their foot on the accelerator throughout the entire game. As the Xavier game showed, you can never count the Friars out and with the star-power of Cartwright and Bullock they are always a danger to make a run to pull themselves back in it. Don’t expect a walk in the (central) park. The Friars have one of the better three-point defenses in the country and they know the Wildcats thrive on three-point shooting. They came out attacking the three-point line in both match-ups this season, causing a slow start at home and the horrendous three-point shooting performance in Providence. The Wildcats may be forced to utilize their post offense more than usual, and Spellman and Paschall will need to come up strong in the paint. In their win at home the two big men combined for 33 points, most of which came from inside the arc. The Friars are trying to improve their seeding in the tournament and a consecutive wins over Xavier and Villanova would certainly be a resume booster. I think the Wildcats will prevail but it will be a much closer game, somewhere in between ‘the 16 Seton Hall loss and the ‘17 comfort win.
But just in case...
A loss isn’t the end of the world. The last time a NCAA Champion won their conference tournament was
Lousiville in 2013 - wait, vacated - UConn in 2011. We all know crushing loss-to-victory story of 2016. But for now, tune in on FOX at 6:30 PM for the Big East Championship under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.