Here comes the big one. On Saturday, No. 3 Villanova will travel to No. 4 Xavier in what might be the biggest regular season game since the reshaping of the Big East. It’s also a rematch of an 89-65 thumping the Wildcats handed the Musketeers back on Jan. 10 — their third-straight win in the series, which have come by an average of 21.6 points.
But since then, Xavier has rebounded nicely, winning nine games in a row while building a 1.5 game lead in the conference standings. Villanova, meanwhile, has lost two of three games and now find themselves in an unfamiliar midseason slump. So will these teams continue to head in opposite directions on Saturday, or will the Wildcats continue their run of Musketeer dominance?
Here are three things to watch for:
Is this the end of the Big East dynasty?
Well, this is it. After winning four-straight regular season conference titles (the longest streak in league history), Villanova sees itself in a pretty much do or die spot on Saturday. A win would tie the Wildcats and Xavier in the loss column, making it a neck-and-neck race over the last two weeks. A loss would send Villanova two games back with Xavier having just three games to play — two of which are against Georgetown and DePaul.
Of course, that’s not everything on the line Saturday. There’s that five-year stretch where the Wildcats haven’t lost back-to-back games, a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and a whole lot of confidence heading into the stretch run. Yes, these things are rather meaningless compared to winning a national title in six weeks, but they are all hallmarks of an unprecedented run of league play dominance for the program. And that is something a lot of Villanova fans hang their hats on.
Can the Wildcats identify what the problem is?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, Villanova has not looked like itself for five of the last six halves of basketball. Only the second half of Butler resembled anything that the Wildcats showed over the first three months of the season. The Providence loss on Wednesday was the toughest defeat to swallow because it was the first one without an excuse. Butler got hot, Eric Paschall was out against St. John’s, but what happened at The Dunk?
It was an uncharacteristically sloppy game on Wednesday, with Villanova turning the ball over 19 times, allowing easy baskets, and committing needless fouls. Beyond that, the team struggled to get open looks from deep all night (3-for-20) and was nonexistent on the offensive glass (four offensive boards). The Wildcats are playing with an ever-changing lineup due to injuries and that means nightly role changes. Is that just the root of all the problems? We don’t know.
What we do know is there are just five games left before postseason. Promising seasons have slipped away before (see 2009-10), and a win on Saturday would turn growing concern into a blip on the radar.
Will the luck of the Musketeer run out?
While claiming another team is “lucky” is usually little more than a frivolous excuse to ignore your own team’s weaknesses, for Xavier, there’s data to back it up! By its “Luck” measure, KenPom rates Xavier at No. 4 in the country — the only team with 20 wins in the Top 20. The Musketeers have a 2-0 overtime record and are 9-0 in games decided by eight points or less. Maybe that’s luck or maybe it’s just the team’s ability to play well in close games.
With three broken hands, a concussion, and a small facial fracture in the last two months, Villanova is feeling anything but lucky at the moment. As for actual game data, the Wildcats sit at a slightly above average No. 154 in the country in “Luck” over at KenPom.
Villanova and Xavier are two national title contenders who meet on Saturday in a game that could go either way. If luck is what decides this one, then the Wildcats are hoping the Musketeers are due for a reversal of fortunes.