Through nine decades of Villanova basketball, the Wildcats have seen a lot: NCAA Tournament berths, Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours and even a National Championship.
On Saturday night, though, they will see something for the first time in program history.
Villanova (6-4) will make their first visit to the St. Joseph’s campus. The annual Big 5 “Holy War” always provides a hostile atmosphere, but on Hawk Hill, Villanova will likely find their toughest test.
Although the Wildcats lead the all-time series 43-24, St. Joe’s (7-3) poses a huge threat to their season. While Villanova has dropped four of their last six games, the Hawks have won four of their last five.
Villanova coach Jay Wright puts a great emphasis on Big 5 contests, going 33-10 against Philadelphia’s other schools. Wright is also 7-3 against Phil Martelli and St. Joe’s.
Despite Villanova’s history of success, they are in a lot of danger on Saturday. They have a young team that has not responded to high-intensity or pressure situations. They also haven’t proven they can play two good halves of basketball.
Villanova hasn’t lost five games prior to opening their Big East schedule since the 2002-03 season. They started 8-5 that year and finished just 15-16. They hope to avoid a similar fate.
The Hawks enter with an equally young lineup, but one that has developed much quicker.
St. Joe’s is led by a lethal backcourt of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway. They combine for 35.0 points per game. They are shooting 40.6 percent and 46.6 percent from three-point range, respectively.
Villanova, in a fierce road game, will have trouble keeping up. Don’t be surprised if the Hawks just run away from the Wildcats.
Villanova has more talent from top to bottom, but these games are won more with heart, toughness and determination. It is hard to imagine St. Joe’s losing the battle in those categories.
The Wildcats will need to show much more discretion with their outside shooting. In their victory over Boston University, they heaved 27 shots from long distance despite making just six.
St. Joe’s sophomore forward C.J. Aiken has been a shot-blocking menace with 4.8 per game. The Hawks’ other option underneath is sophomore transfer Halil Kanacevic, their leading rebounder with 6.1 per contest. He also averages 3.9 personal fouls per game.
Villanova’s best chance to win the game is attacking the paint and making good use of center Mouphtaou Yarou on the block. They need to get the St. Joe’s big men into foul trouble and get to the free-throw line, where they shoot an impressive 77.3 percent.
The free-throw line is the only place Villanova has had consistent success. They are shooting just 43 percent from the field and 32 percent on threes. They also turn it over 13 times a game.
Defensively, they miss assignments and seem to have trouble understanding the concept of switching and rotating to the ball. On defense, the only thing they do well is defending on the ball and actively using their hands.
Villanova versus St. Joe’s is a huge game for both teams. This game could catapult one team to a surprise season and leave the other waiting for next year.
If the Wildcats have any hope of springing forward into March Madness, they will need to grow up in a hurry.
Although Villanova has won the last three in the series and six of the last seven, don’t expect it. St. Joe’s just has too much firepower.
But in the Big 5 and the “Holy War” you just never know what will happen.