Are the Villanova Wildcats This Year's Big East Wild Card?
I have been following Villanova basketball for more than 20 years now. I’ve seen many great Wildcat teams come and go. I’ve lived through the 1985 championship season, the wonderful stretch in the mid-'90s with Kittles, Lawson, Williams, and Eberz, and what was perhaps my favorite team of all time (just a few years ago) with Foye, Ray, Lowry, and Nardi.
I’ve also lived through some painfully long seasons with below average talent (and a second-rate coach, Steve Lappas).
I’ve seen tough Big Five and Big East matchups. This year, however, might be the most talented lot of Big East teams I’ve ever seen. The NCAA top 25 is littered with B.E. teams.
To Nova’s advantage, they return their entire team from last season (aside from Malcolm Grant, who transferred) with stars Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham, Corey Fisher, and Corey Stokes.
This team really came of age at the end of last season as they beat Syracuse in the Big East tournament to lock up an NCAA bid. Once in the tournament, they won back-to-back games and made it to the Sweet 16 (where they lost to eventual champion Kansas). What a learning experience that was for the team to be able to build on for this season.
Currently the Wildcats are without forwards Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson. Anderson is sidelined with a stress fracture (as Casseim Drummond was last season), and there is no word when he will be back. Clark should be ready to go for the beginning of the Big East season.
Here are the Top 10 matchups for Nova fans to keep an eye on this season.
TOP FIVE, NON BIG-EAST
Dec. 9 Vs. Texas
This is Villanova’s toughest non-Big East opponent this season. The game will be played on a neutral site.
Nova’s guards will have to play tough defense to shut down A.J. Abrams, who is a dangerous scoring machine. They will also need solid play out of their big men Cunningham, Pena, and Drummond. With Anderson likely still out for this game, they will also need to stay out of foul trouble.
When these two teams met two years ago, Nova shut down the eventual player of the year (Kevin Durant) and won the game.
Dec. 2 & 14 @ La Salle & UPENN
Road games in the Big Five can never be overlooked. Nova has dominated these matchups for the last several years, but both schools always play Nova hard, as a win over the Wildcats would make either opponent's season. Villanova was blown out @ St. Joe's last season, although clearly the Wildcats were the better team in the end.
Big Five games are won with gritty guard play and banging the boards, and the Wildcats have players who can do both.
Dec. 11 & 29 Vs. Temple & St. Joseph's
Nova will get to play their two toughest Big Five games at home this season, but they are still going to be barnburners. These games will be physical, and the Wildcats are going to have to crash the boards, stay out of foul trouble, hit their free throws, and knock down their open threes.
Temple will be the toughest of the two matchups as senior Owl Dionte Christmas is enough to give any defense fits.
TOP FIVE, BIG EAST
Jan. 1 @ Marquette
Villanova’s Big East opener will be one of their toughest games at they travel to play the 16th-ranked Golden Eagles of Marquette. Any road game in the Big East is brutal, and with top-notch guards Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews, Nova guards Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher will have their hands full on both sides of the ball in this one.
Marquette also has Lazar Hayward, who is a bruiser on the boards. Nova will have to do a good job of guarding him and boxing him out. Nova also gets Marquette at home on Feb. 10 and will need to make sure they at least split this series.
Jan. 10 Vs. Louisville
Nova’s Big East home opener is as tough as they get as they welcome the third-ranked Louisville Cardinals into town. Led by guard Edgar Sosa, the Cardinals are loaded with talent.
The three biggest keys to Big East play are rebounding, limiting your turnovers, and free throw shooting, and this game will be no exception. If Nova can’t hit their FTs down the stretch, they won’t beat Louisville.
Regardless, this will prove a very tough matchup for the Wildcats, and they should be happy they play the game in the Wachovia Center, which has become a rocking second home for Villanova and its fans.
Jan. 21 @ UConn
January is just vicious for Nova, as they also travel to play the second-ranked Huskies in Storrs. Villanova has played well against UConn the past few seasons, but this is a loaded Huskies team playing in front of their home fans.
If Villanova wants a shot at winning this game, they will have to do several things. Drummond, Cunningham, Anderson, and Pena will have to play tough defense against Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrian up front. Thabeet is also a stellar shot-blocker, so they can’t force the issue against him on offense.
Nova will also have to get top-notch guard play from Reynolds, Fisher, Stokes, and Redding on both sides of the ball as A.J. Price, Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson, and Craig Austrie will eat them alive if they don’t make smart passes.
If they rotate the ball and knock down open shots, they can stay in the game. If Scottie Reynolds tries to force too many things, it could get ugly. They will also have to hit almost all of their free throws, rebound extremely well, and stay out of foul trouble. It’s a tall order for any team.
Jan. 28 Vs. Pittsburgh
A week after playing the No. 2 Huskies, Villanova gets a visit from the fifth-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt is loaded! With players like Levance Fields, DeJuan Blair, and Sam Young, they can hang with anyone.
Pitt is always a tough matchup for the Wildcats, but they need to take care of good teams at home. This game is winnable, but only if they play smart and focused basketball.
It will really come down to how well Reynolds and Fisher can distribute the ball to the open man and how well Nova’s big men find the open man out of a double-team. If Reynolds can play off the ball a bit, they should be able to find him some open looks for three. He must hit them.
Nova has lived and died by the three, but they have some serious scoring threats underneath, led by Dante Cunningham, and they need to utilize them.
March 2 @ Notre Dame
The fighting Irish are also a top 10 team this season (ranked No. 9) and another very tough matchup. Led by guard Kyle McAlarney and forward Luke Harangody, they can score inside or outside.
Dante Cunningham will have to stay out of foul trouble against Harangody, or it could be a long night for the Wildcats. Drummond will need to do the same if they use him to guard the Irish’s Luke Zeller.
Nova needs to play smart basketball. That is what their whole season comes down to. They have the pieces in place—they just need to execute.
OTHER TOUGH GAMES OF NOTE
Vs. No. 22 Georgetown
@ West Virginia, Syracuse, and Providence (all tough places to play on the road)
I think Nova could go 22-8 this season overall and earn one of the coveted NCAA bids from the toughest conference in men’s basketball, the Big East. They need to stay healthy, they need to play smart, and they have to rebound well and hit their free throws.
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