Coming into the season, this Sunday’s Villanova-La Salle game figured to be a clash between the city’s two best teams, with the Explorers -- coming off a Sweet 16 berth in 2012-13 -- maybe even holding the slight edge.
But after a month-and-a-half, one thing has become clear: Villanova is by far the best team in the city… and perhaps one of the best teams in the nation.
Just take a look at some of the numbers:
- The Wildcats are unbeaten in nine games, thumping teams by an average of 18 points per game
- They beat two nationally ranked teams – then-No. 2 Kansas and then-No. 13 Iowa – away from home (at a neutral site)
- They rank fifth in the Pomeroy Ratings, seventh in the RPI and 10th in the AP poll, out of 351 Division 1 teams
- JayVaughn Pinkston has emerged as one of the country’s most efficient players, scoring 17.8 points per game on 52 percent field goal shooting, while attempting more than eight free throws per contest
- Unlike many other powerhouse programs that reel in one-and-done players, Villanova has a reliable star senior in James Bell, who’s slowly improved every season and is now averaging 17.6 points per game in his final year
- Transfer Dylan Ennis and junior Darrun Hilliard are both shooting over 40 percent from three, making up for the shooting struggles of Ryan Arcidiacono, who has still buried some clutch shots and only figures to get better as the year progresses
- Freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins are giving Jay Wright valuable depth, combining for 12 points in 34 minutes per game
- The Wildcats have been excellent at both taking care of and sharing the ball, as evidenced by their turnover margin (plus-3.9 per game, 31st in the nation) and their assists per game (16.7, 20th in the nation)
- They’re holding opponents to 37.8 percent field goal percentage (22nd in the nation)
There are other stats that paint an impressive picture of Villanova’s start, but perhaps nothing has been as telling as the Wildcats’ last two Big 5 games. This past Saturday, Villanova went into tiny Hagan Arena and stomped a solid St. Joe’s team by 30, pouring in a whopping 59 points in the second half. Three days before that, in their Big 5 opener, the Wildcats cruised past Penn by 23 points despite Jay Wright saying that the Quakers played harder and executed better. (Wright has a habit of gushing about the team he just destroyed, but it’s still a good sign when a team can sleepwalk to an victory over a team they should easily beat.)
At this point, it’s hard not to think of La Salle as being anything but a big underdog against Villanova, especially on the road. And considering that the new Big East isn’t nearly as good as the old Big East (perhaps not even as good as the Atlantic 10?), the Wildcats will probably be favored for most of their games from here on out, barring a showdown at Syracuse on Dec. 28.
If the Wildcats can beat the Orange and then follow that up with a New Year’s Eve win over Butler, Villanova might very well go into 2014 not only as the favorite to win the Big East but as a legitimate Final Four contender.