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Villanova prepares for first look at Big East-leading Providence

The Wildcats and Friars are set to meet in a clash between two top 10-ranked teams.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With the latest AP rankings bumping both Villanova and Providence up into the top 10, the anticipation for Tuesday’s matchup has risen even higher.

It’ll be the Wildcats’ first glance at the conference-leading Friars this season.

“That’s what the outside people say, but we go into our next game as our biggest game,” Villanova guard Justin Moore said of the pre-game hype. “Whether we’re playing somebody not ranked or a team playing as well as Providence, we’re going in and giving it our best shot.”

The Wildcats and Friars split the regular season series in each of the last two years. In Villanova’s previous trip to the Dunkin Donuts Center, it fell short of completing a comeback, despite injuries to Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s shot at the buzzer was no good and Providence held on for a 54-52 win.

While it should be another battle, the arena will be much louder than it was during the 2020-21 COVID-shortened season.

“Playing at the Dunk is definitely one of a kind, especially when we go up there and play,” Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels said. “You know it’s gonna be sold out, a hostile environment. You’re not going to be able to hear yourself think, and that’s the beauty of the Big East.”

No. 10 Villanova enters with a three-game winning streak and a 19-6 overall record, with a 12-3 Big East record.

Meanwhile, No. 8 Providence has a 21-2 record and a conference-leading 11-1 showing in Big East play. The Friars are rolling in with an eight-game winning streak.

This season, Providence is 9-0 in games decided by five or fewer points.

“These guys have been outstanding, just executing offensively and defensively,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’ve got great balance and great role definition, and I think that’s why they’ve been great at the end of games also.

“It doesn’t surprise anybody in our league that Providence is having this kind of year, because we know the quality of the program and the quality of Ed Cooley.”

Wright and Cooley have both been great in close-game situations since conference realignment. Of all college basketball power conferences, they’re the only two coaches to have won more than 60% of games decided by six or fewer points, or games that have gone into overtime since 2013-14.

While Wright credits Providence’s balance and top-six rotational players, he’s expecting a handful from the Friars’ standout center, Nate Watson.

“He’s always been a problem,” Wright said. “We had Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and he’s a NBA player. ... We’ve had so many guys go against him, and he’s been a problem every year. I know a young guy like Eric Dixon, he’s gonna learn a lot going against him.”

Although it isn’t Watson’s statistically best season, he still leads the Friars with 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.

“We’re trying to get into a rhythm and get guys healthy where we can practice together,” Wright said. “Collin and Justin practiced today but only half of practice, not live stuff. We’re trying to survive here. I love what we’re doing. It’ll help in the long run.”

As the regular season unwinds, it’s been challenging to deal with injuries.

“Shutting them down for a certain number of games, it’s gonna get close to the end of the season,” Wright said. “By shutting them down, it’ll take time to get back too. We’re trying to keep ‘em in shape and gradually get these ankles better. We went with that decision because they want to play. If one of them said, I want to shut it down, we would have done it. But, when you do that, it takes time to get yourself back, and I’m not sure if we have enough time.”

Tuesday’s game is set to tip-off at 8 p.m. ET from the Dunkin Donuts Center. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

“Whatever happens tomorrow night, we have to come back, we got another game after that, and we need to keep getting better,” Wright said. “We’ll learn a lot going up there because of their talent, experience and that environment. We’re gonna learn a lot, we’ll come out better either way.”