Villanova's Wright really loves Big East tourney

usa-jay-wright-villanova-slideshow.jpg

Villanova's Wright really loves Big East tourney

NEW YORK – Jay Wright loves the Big East tournament. Really loves it. You won’t believe how much he loves it.

Really, you won’t.

“Winning this to me … we’ve never won, but winning this to me, because this is where I’m from, the East, is almost as important as going to the Final 4,” Wright said.

Umm … Jay?

“I know I’ll get in trouble for that, but it’s the truth,” Wright said. “I just love what it stands for. Everybody from the Northeast being in New York for this tournament. …

“The Big East tournament is one of the greatest basketball tournaments in the country.”

Seems like crazy talk. But Wright is trying to get across the point that he sees the Big East tournament as an important, fun, exciting few days in New York, not just a meaningless exercise that does little except cement a team’s seeding in the NCAA tournament.

Villanova opens play in the Big East tournament at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden against Seton Hall, a 51-50 winner over Butler Wednesday night. Villanova beat Seton Hall by 16 and 17 points this year.

“This time of year is always fun, because you get a new start,” Wright said. “When you’re having a bad year and you get to this tournament, it’s not about your season, it’s about, ‘We’re going to go play in a three-day tournament and that’s fun.’ And when you have a good team it’s even more fun.”

Wright has one of his best teams ever this year. Villanova, 28-3 and ranked No. 3 in the country, is the top seed in the Big East tournament for the first time since 1997.

The conference has undergone monumental changes, losing Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and several other big-time programs and adding Creighton -- which handed the Wildcats their only two conference losses -- along with Xavier and Butler.

Villanova last won the Big East tourney in 1995. The Wildcats haven’t even made the championship game since 2004. They’re 2-5 in their last seven conference tourney games.

Although conventional wisdom has Villanova meeting No. 14 Creighton Saturday night in the title game, there are several other formidable teams in the 10-team tournament.

Providence, Xavier and St. John’s have 20 wins each and are NCAA bubble teams. They need wins in New York more than Villanova and Creighton.

“I think this tournament is going to be pretty wide open,” Wright said. “The chance of us getting to the final is going to be tough, the chance of Creighton getting to the final is tough.

“I’ve heard people talking about that, but there’s a lot of really good teams in between.”

Clearly, the new Big East conference isn’t as powerful as the old Big East, but Wright said the new conference is strong in its own way, presenting different kinds of challenges for Villanova.

Wright points to the conference’s No. 4 composite RPI, even without Pitt, UConn, Syracuse, etc.

“This was just as difficult a league in a different way,” Wright said. “Going to Creighton … Creighton was just a style we’ve never really played against. Going at Butler and at Xavier were really different environments that we hadn’t seen and different styles of play.

“It was a challenging year, it was just different. Like when we would go at Louisville or at Connecticut, we were used to that kind of play. We were built to play against that. We struggled with Butler at Butler, we won at overtime.

“It’s just a different basketball philosophy, and they play a different style. They play very cerebral, close-to-the-vest, they keep you in a close game. It was challenging in a different way.

“Playing everybody twice was really cool, but there’s a new challenge to that. By the end of the year, we all knew each other really well. I think the fans knew the teams really well.”

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and producer Sean Kane get you set for all of the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Providence (13-7, 3-4 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (18-1, 6-1 Big East), Saturday at noon

AF: This is a first. In the three seasons that I have been privileged to co-author this column, I've never written about Villanova. Today, that drought ends. Thank you to all who made this possible, which really is just one person: Sean Kane. 

I think one of the reasons that he relinquished his iron grip, just for one week, is that a new, young fan is now on board with this Villanova team and will be attending his first Wildcats game this weekend. When I say that our 2-year-old son is a fan, that may be understating it a little bit. He knows the entire roster, from Josh Hart to Donte DiVincenzo, and every player in between. He knows the fight song, and proudly belts out V for Villanova. Of course, I'm proud of my son. I do wish he could sneak in a few bars of "On, On U of K" or know one other Kentucky player besides Malik Monk. But that's enough of the background of why I finally broke through and am writing about Villanova this week.

The Wildcats returned to the No. 1 ranking this week as they welcome Providence to the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday. The Friars have given Jay Wright's teams fits over the past few seasons. You don't need to look much farther than last year when you check the numbers of a Ben Bentil or Kris Dunn. In fact, in the last three seasons, Villanova has lost one home game, and almost a year ago exactly that loss came courtesy of Providence. On Jan. 24, 2016, Bentil owned the low post and poured in 31 points, while the high-low game was working to perfection because Dunn racked up 14 assists. Of course, neither Dunn nor Bentil are on this year's Providence squad and that is a good thing for 'Nova.

The Friars come into this game on a short, two-game winning streak, but that's bigger than it may seem. Before that, they dropped five of their previous six games, including a heartbreaking one-point loss to DePaul.

Nothing seems to get Providence back on track better than Georgetown, already sweeping the season series with the Hoyas. Ed Cooley's team seems to do this every year — have a lull only to explode in March. The Friars did it three years ago, when Villanova crushed them by 30 in January, only to see Providence steamroll its way through the Big East Tournament. So I'm never ready to count out a Cooley team. 

But Villanova is rolling after its lone loss of the year, falling to Butler on the road after a spectacular performance at Creighton. Sean wrote in this very column last week that the Wildcats needed to get more from their bench, specifically DiVincenzo. No, I don't think Donte reads this (though he should; it's fun!), but it was as if he did. In the decisive victory over Seton Hall this week, DiVincenzo posted 10 points, two rebounds and a monster block in 29 minutes of work, a solid effort off the bench. 

In the game before, at St. John's last weekend, DiVincenzo had starter-like numbers in a two-man bench effort with Eric Paschall. DiVincenzo tallied a career-high 19 points in the win at the Garden. And if the Wildcats are getting numbers near that from him, they should start thinking about a return trip to the Final Four. 

March is all about depth. Hart is going to get his. But you need other players to step up (see: Phil Booth in the title game). DiVincenzo could be that guy for Wright this year. This team certainly looks primed to go far in March. 

The spotlight on the Wells Fargo Center will shine on the Wildcats and another win. 

Villanova 80, Providence 66

La Salle (11-5, 5-1 A-10) at VCU (14-5, 4-2 A-10), Sunday at 2 p.m.

SK: Which city team has the longest winning streak? It's not top-ranked Villanova. The correct answer would be the La Salle Explorers, winners of five straight games and seven of their last nine. The good times kept rolling Thursday night with a 91-83 victory over Davidson at Tom Gola Arena. 

Four different Explorers scored 12 or more points in the win, and the one starter who didn't — junior Demetrius Henry — provided three critical baskets in the closing minutes.

Henry's contributions aside, the night belonged to Jordan Price. The senior guard scored 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Price knocked down 4 of 6 three-point attempts and went 7 of 8 from the foul line. The Explorers' leader is hitting his stride, averaging 26 points in the last two games while shooting 72 percent from the field.

La Salle now sets its sights on a Sunday showdown at VCU, which has a 14-5 record under second-year head coach Will Wade. The Rams will be hungry for a win, having dropped back-to-back road games at Davidson and Fordham. Wade has done an admirable job maintaining the success of the VCU program following the departure of Shaka Smart to Texas following the 2014-15 season. The Rams advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and have a good shot at making their way into the Field of 68 again this season.

The Explorers shouldn't be fazed by VCU's raucous homecourt advantage. La Salle won in double overtime in its last trip to Richmond against VCU two years ago.

I can honestly see this game going either way, and would be surprised if things weren't decided in the final minutes. But I'm riding the hot hand with the Explorers and Price. La Salle is a confident team right now; look for it to figure out a way to win a sixth straight game on Sunday.

La Salle 81, VCU 78

Pennsylvania (6-8, 0-3 Ivy League) at Saint Joseph's (8-9, 2-4 A-10), Saturday at 7 p.m.

AF: The Quakers are in the midst of a tough stretch. They opened up Ivy League play with rival Princeton two weeks ago, and it started a three-game losing streak — first to the Tigers, then home losses to Yale and Brown. But it's not as if Penn hasn't been in these games. In the loss to Brown, the Quakers cut it to just a two-point deficit with under eight minutes to play, but a great defensive stand by the Bears led to Penn's missing its next seven shots. 

Next up for Steve Donahue, a Big 5 matchup with Saint Joseph's, a team also reeling a bit. 

In its most recent game, a five-point loss at UMass, St. Joe's shot 32 percent, including an abysmal 26 percent in the second half. 

Once again, the Hawks did get a solid effort from James Demery. The junior had a career-high 11 rebounds to go with his team-high 19 points in the loss. One would think that if Phil Martelli keeps getting efforts like that from Demery, the Hawks will break through on a win soon. They are just short-handed with injuries right now.

This game will be played at the Palestra, which contrary to a silly Duke tweet this week, is the greatest home court in college basketball. Fun fact: Penn has enjoyed more success against Saint Joseph’s than any other Big 5 opponent in recent years, with three wins over the last six meetings.

But I don't know if that fun fact continues this weekend. Both teams are playing with a little desperation, and I think that the shooters for the Hawks will step up in this one.

Saint Joseph's 62, Penn 60

Drexel (7-12, 1-5 CAA) at UNC Wilmington (18-2, 7-0 CAA), Sunday at 4 p.m.

SK: To say this is a tall order for Drexel would be an understatement. The Dragons have dropped six of their last seven games, including a 20-point loss at Elon Thursday night. Meanwhile, UNC Wilmington enters Sunday's game with an 18-2 record and a perfect 7-0 mark in CAA play. The Seahawks' two losses this season came at Clemson and against a very good Middle Tennessee State team.

The UNC Wilmington program has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround under third-year head coach Kevin Keatts, who previously served as Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville. The Seahawks won 25 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament last year, losing a tightly contested game to Duke in the first round. After they established themselves as the class of the CAA once again this season, it would come as a major surprise if they're not back in the Big Dance this March. 

UNC Wilmington has three players averaging 15 points or more — C.J. Bryce (17.5), Chris Flemmings (15.9) and Denzel Ingram (15.5). The Seahawks simply have too much firepower for a Drexel team struggling to find its way under first-year head coach Zach Spiker. For the Dragons' sake, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see this being much of a contest.

UNC Wilmington 77, Drexel 59

Prediction records
Sean Kane: 18-4
Amy Fadool: 13-7

Delaware avenges 36-point loss with upset of Northeastern

Delaware avenges 36-point loss with upset of Northeastern

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, Del. -- Freshman Ryan Daly scored 27 points and Delaware avenged its worst loss of the season, upsetting Northeastern 69-62 on Thursday night for the Blue Hens' first Colonial Athletic Association win of the season.

Cazmon Hayes added 13 points and Eric Carter 11 for Delaware (8-12, 1-6), which snapped a six-game losing streak that had included a 36-point loss, 90-54, to the Huskies on Jan. 5.

T.J. Williams scored 28 points, the only Huskies player to reach double figures. Northeastern (12-7, 5-2) lost its second straight after an eight-game winning streak.

Three-pointers by Devonne Pinkard and Daly gave Delaware the lead for good at 46-41 with 11 minutes left. A 14-2 run with eight points each from Carter and Daly made it a 12-point lead with two minutes to go.

Delaware made 17 of 22 free throws to 7 of 14 for Northeastern.