The Villanova Wildcats (12-18, 5-13 Big East) have had a season as rough as any since Jay Wright began coaching the program 11 years ago. Villanova went from being ranked at the beginning of the season to winning just 5 Big East conference games in the regular season. However, this Villanova team has a reason to believe, and has a distinct possibility of making a deep run through the Big East tournament.
Villanova is the #14 seed in the Big East Tournament, which begins next Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The team will face #11 Rutgers in the opening round of the marathon tournament. If Villanova can not beat a 14-17 Rutgers team with the 2011-2012 season on the line, then Villanova simply doesn’t deserve to have an opportunity to make a deep run. In addition, Villanova just beat Rutgers last week on the road 77-71 after taking a dominating 20 point lead in the first half.
If Villanova beats Rutgers, the team will move on to play South Florida. The Bulls have beaten the Cats twice this season, and once by 17 points at home. However, the Bulls are no juggernaut. There is a reason that, even at 19-12 and 12-6 in the conference, the Bulls are still on the outside looking in to the NCAA tournament according to many experts. They lack the quality wins this season, and more importantly for Villanova, lack the ability to score consistently, as they have scored 50 points or fewer in three of their last four games. The Wildcats also will have revenge on their minds against South Florida if they advance that far, as USF has beaten Villanova three consecutive times, including last year in the Big East tournament after Nova took a 16 point lead into half. Villanova has a favorable matchup in the second round of the Big East tournament if it advances to play USF, and if Nova can not beat this Bulls team then it didn’t deserve to make a deep run in the first place.
In the third round, Nova would draw the #3 seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who would be fresh and playing its first game of the tournament as opposed to Villanova’s third game in three days. However, Villanova dominated the early stretches of the February 18th game against Notre Dame, at one point taking a 20 point first half lead. The Wildcats eventually squandered the entire lead and lost a heartbreaker in overtime, but the ability to play with Notre Dame is undoubtedly there. In addition, and it’s a spoiler alert, but Notre Dame is simply not that good. I give credit to Mike Brey for preparing his team to perform well in the regular season, but there is no conceivable way that Notre Dame can make a deep NCAA tournament run with the combination of its lack of true talent as well as its style of play. Notre Dame focuses on defense and the burn offense, but as has been the case in recent years, with losses to double digit seeds each of the last two years in the NCAA tournament, that simply doesn’t work in postseason play. The Irish becomes very vulnerable in March every year, and Villanova couldn’t draw a better third round matchup than the third seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Just like that, Villanova could position itself in the semifinals of the Big East tournament with victories over a bad Rutgers team, a mediocre South Florida team that can’t score, and a dramatically overrated Notre Dame team. Isn’t Villanova a bad team this year though? Without a doubt. However, the talent is there, and has shown itself more and more every week. In the past nine games, Villanova has taken at least an 18 point lead four times. Has the team blown these leads? Yes, in three of those games, it has. However, the team has shown signs of recovery and chemistry recently, and with the return of Maalik Wayns full-time to the lineup, along with the quick recovery of JayVaughn Pinkston after his freak injury prior to the Georgetown game, the Wildcat lineup is shaping itself into form.
A starting lineup of Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek, JayVaughn Pinkston, Mouphtaou Yarou, and Maurice Sutton isn’t a lineup to take lightly. Even though the results haven’t shown themselves in the win-loss column, the sprinklings of progress are clear, and the upcoming week could be a very exciting one for Villanova. A first round matchup against Rutgers, followed by South Florida and Notre Dame, and the assurance of not seeing Syracuse until at least final leads to the belief that Villanova could light some unexpected fireworks in the Garden next week.
Could Villanova lose in the first round to Rutgers on Tuesday? Absolutely. But the groundwork has been laid, the improvement is finally scratching the surface, and the matchups line up perfectly to allow Villanova to crash the party in Madison Square Garden.