By John Fanta
PHILADELPHIA – The known is that the Big East is loaded with depth, with nine of the 10 teams receiving votes in this week’s AP Top 25 and those same nine appearing in the Top 53 of the latest NET Rankings.
What is unknown is how everything will play out in the league standings, but fittingly on opening night of conference play, the top two in the Big East preseason poll flexed their muscles.
It’s a movie we’ve seen many times over the last seven years: Villanova going on a patented run powered by point guard play and perimeter shooting, and closing out a win at the Finneran Pavilion. Xavier made a game of it in the second half, but 17 unanswered from the Wildcats in the first stanza was simply too much to overcome in a 68-62 Villanova victory on Monday night.
Improving to 51-4 – yes, 51-4! – in home Big East games since 2013, Villanova showed why they are so consistent. From Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson to Collin Gillespie, the Cats have no dropoff in point guard. Gillespie, the junior star, drove Villanova on Monday with 24 points to go with five assists. Head coach Jay Wright compared Gillespie to a quarterback, citing the evolution of his decision-making skills and finishing ability at the rim.
“I’m playing freely and with a lot of confidence,” said Gillespie. “It’s easy to play with guys and coaches who trust you.”
That’s a culture quote, and while it may sound cheesy, at Villanova that’s a real thing. It’s something you don’t see on a stat sheet, but the way graduating players pass the torch and there’s little to no drop-off speaks volumes of the program. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall set the way, and Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels (14 points, eight rebounds in the win) have taken it on.
While the Cats only shot 28 percent from beyond the arc, Villanova hit seven triples to just one for Xavier. The Musketeers’ inconsistent offense kept them from ever finding a rhythm, as junior Naji Marshall scored 19 but it took him 20 shots to get there. A telling moment? Head coach Travis Steele brought in freshman guard KyKy Tandy down the stretch. We could see the first-year Musketeer garner more minutes because of the fact Xavier is still searching for an offensive identity, and there’s a belief that Tandy can help provide it.
Two other things stood out from Villanova’s victory – the Wildcats have made leaps and bounds defensively, holding Kansas to just 55 points on Dec. 21 and the Musketeers to just 62 on Monday. While both recent opponents have had thier own offensive issues, the performance by Villanova on “D” is a welcome sight for them. The other factor? There are five or even six different players who could lead Villanova in scoring on any given night. While sophomore Saddiq Bey and freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, two of the five players averaging in double-figures, were held to just single-digits on Monday, it didn’t matter.
“That’s a big positive for us, the balance we have,” said Wright. “It’s who you always want to be, but to have six different guys averaging nine or more points per game, it says a lot about this group and their unselfishness. They don’t care who gets it done.”
The 10th-ranked Wildcats visit Marquette on Saturday, while Xavier hosts a sizzling St. John’s team on Sunday in Cincinnati.
Seton Hall is a defense-first team. When the Pirates string stops together, they live up to that preseason Big East favorite, Top-15 billing. Just like they called on their “D” in a Top-10 win over Maryland at the Prudential Center on Dec. 19, the Pirates locked in on that end again on Monday. The difference, though? This time, The Hall was on the road in a Big East environment. This time, Myles Powell put them over the top.
Holding DePaul to just 10 points in the final 10 minutes, SHU ended the game on a 9-0 run to topple DePaul 74-66. Powell, who was listed as a game-time decision after missing two games with a concussion, scored 10 of his 27 points in the final 4:58 to close out the conference opener victory. The Hall moved to 8-2 under Kevin Willard in Big East wins.
While the Pirates shut down DePaul offensively in the final minutes, there was a level of experience versus inexperience that showed at Wintrust Arena. The Blue Demons, now 12-2, formed one of the biggest surprises in America with their non-conference play performance, notching power conference wins over Texas Tech, Iowa and Minnesota, among others. But in the final moments of the Big East lidlifter, Seton Hall looked like the program that has been to the last four NCAA Tournaments.
As junior point guard Charlie Moore goes, the Blue Demons go in many respects. The Kansas transfer was swarmed by The Hall’s defense, scoring 13 points on 15 shots and turning the ball over eight times. DePaul will be okay and has a really solid resume, but this was a learning moment for the Blue Demons.
For The Hall, a 9-4 record and a conference road win to open up in this daunting league shows that despite the injuries and heartbreaking losses, the Pirates can still get to where they want to be – a quality seed in the NCAA Tournament. Powell wrote another chapter of his legend, while senior 7-footer Romaro Gill provided rim protection and an explosive dunk down the stretch. With a defense as good as SHU’s can be, and the drive in #13 in the blue and white, the Pirates can be a dangerous team. Can they be consistent? We’ll know in due time.
Seton Hall plays their Big East home opener Friday against resurgent Georgetown, while DePaul will be in need of a win. The Blue Demons are home to Providence Saturday, and starting out league play with two at Wintrust out of the gates, avoiding an 0-2 start is crucial. That’s a big one for Dave Leitao’s crew.