By John FantaFollow @John_Fanta
VILLANOVA – The college basketball season is truly a marathon. A week ago, Butler was the crown jewel of Big East storylines, up to #5 in the AP Poll, a program-best. Entering Tuesday, the Dawgs are trying to avoid a sudden three-game losing streak. If they’re going to do so, they’d have to achieve something that only Butler has been able to do in the Big East since 2013 – beat Villanova at The Pavilion.
The ninth-ranked Wildcats are 26-1 at “The Finn” in conference games since the Big East reconfigured seven years ago, with the Dawgs coming away with a 74-66 victory over the Wildcats on Feb. 22, 2017. On that night, Kelan Martin put up 22 points while then-freshman Kamar Baldwin poured in 15 against a Villanova team that finished the season 32-4.
Fast forward three years, and Baldwin’s been the key force behind the Dawgs being one of the top surprises in all of college hoops. While the history and the story of the surprise season is nice, Tuesday brings a pressure situation for both teams. If Butler loses, suddenly LaVall Jordan’s team is three games behind first-place Seton Hall. A Villanova loss would not only be a stunner considering their track record on campus, but pit them two games back of the Pirates, who are 6-0 in league play.
Both teams are well in place to get a strong NCAA Tournament seed, with the Dawgs owning a combined nine quadrant one or two victories and the Wildcats possessing six, but the goal of a conference regular season title is the major emphasis in this one.
Here are three things to watch:
- Elite Guard Matchup: Baldwin, now a senior, meets Villanova star junior Collin Gillespie on Tuesday. These two are mirror images of each other in some categories while going about it in different ways. Baldwin may be the better finisher, but if Gillespie is left open he will make anybody pay. That said, they both average around 15 points per game on 42 percent shooting. And, as Baldwin and Gillespie go, Butler and Villanova respectively go. I would presume that the Bulldogs throw junior Aaron Thompson on Gillespie at times, if not most of the way, but it’s going to be must-see college basketball watching these two players go punch for punch with each other. Both could land on the All-Big East First Team when it’s said and done.
- Can Villanova keep Butler from controlling the glass? The Bulldogs lead the Big East with a +6.6 rebounding margin and are up to +11.7 in conference play thus far. Villanova checks in at fourth in the Big East at +2.8, but when looking inside the matchup, it will be interesting to see if Cats freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl can hold his own as much as he has when meeting impact Butler transfers Bryce Nze and Bryce Golden, who combine for nearly 11 boards per game. Senior stretch forward Sean McDermott has provided a burst on the glass in Big East play with over seven boards per game as well. The Dawgs do it by committee and do it very well. While Villanova’s undersized, they will have to match that on Tuesday.
- Complementary Scoring: We know what Baldwin and Gillespie are likely going to do in this game. The question in this matchup is just how much we’ll see a Villanova offense with five averaging in double-figures churn out those balanced results against a Butler defense looking to bounce back. After allowing none of their first 16 opponents to break 70 points, the Dawgs have surrendered 78 and 79 points in their last two games. The Cats are coming off a 61-55 win over UConn, but like other contests, the offense was a challenge to come by at times and was so oriented around Gillespie, Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels. Beyond those three, there’s still an unknown at times. On the other side, Butler needs McDermott to be steady and Duke transfer Jordan Tucker to continue to deliver the offensive boost he has in conference play at over 12 points per game. On the flip side, the Wildcats have made strides defensively, allowing just 63 points per game in their last seven contests. This could be a ‘first to 60 wins’ type of game.
Tip-off from just outside Philadelphia will be at 7 PM ET on Tuesday. Follow @John_Fanta on Twitter for updates.