NEWARK, N.J. – Villanova’s downward spiral began last month with a come-from-ahead loss at St. John’s, followed by 12-point defeats at Georgetown and at Xavier. With their shots not falling and Marquette coming to the Main Line, the Wildcats appeared to be on their way out of the Big East championship picture.
Somehow, the slide skidded to a halt. The Cats won their next two games. Their Feb. 27 victory over the Golden Eagles sparked a three-game losing streak that dropped Marquette into second place, and enabled them to clinch a tie for the regular-season title.
So the stage is set Saturday at Prudential Center for the 23rd-ranked Wildcats (22-8, 13-4) to win the outright conference title for the fifth time in the six years of the reorganized league, and a No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament, when it takes on Seton Hall (17-12, 8-9).
Villanova has been idle since a 75-54 win last Saturday over Butler, which put Jay Wright and his players in a place they couldn’t imagine after their three-game losing streak.
“Going through those three losses, I wouldn’t have thought we’d be in this position,” Wright said Friday, "but you always know it’s possible. That’s why we always just take next game, and it’s really what we’re doing here.
“We’ve got to get better from our Butler game, that’s what we’ve talked about all week. We’ve got to prepare for this one game, this Seton Hall road game. You can look back at the history since the new Big East, and this has always been a tough game for us.”
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The Pirates went a long way toward securing an NCAA Tournament bid with Wednesday night’s 73-64 win over Marquette -- a game they finished on an 18-0 run -- and can all but clinch a berth with a win over the 'Cats.
In the last seven games they’ve played against Villanova here or at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament, the Pirates have won three and lost two by one point, including a 69-68 overtime decision last year at the Rock.
“The environment there, the way they play us, different teams match up differently,” Wright said. “They always give us trouble because of their commitment defensively. They’ve got such good athleticism and length.”
They also have Myles Powell, who scored 10 of Seton Hall’s last 18 points against Marquette and finished with 34, his seventh game this season of 30 or more. In the Pirates’ first meeting against Villanova, an 80-52 Wildcat win on Jan. 27, Powell had three points and seven turnovers.
“I haven’t seen him do that in any other game and he certainly isn’t doing that now,” Wright said. “We’re really trying to concentrate on not using that game at all as an example, or even some of the things we did, because it just seemed like an anomaly.”
Eric Paschall, who has guarded some of the Big East’s best backcourt men including Powell, Marquette’s Markus Howard and St. John’s Shamorie Ponds, knows Powell will be a tough matchup.
“Myles has been a great shooter, a great player, all his life so we all know what he can do,” he said. “We just need to play him as a team, do those little things and try to just get him out of his rhythm.”
Going into the final day of the Big East schedule, none of the 10 teams has clinched a seed for the tournament beginning Wednesday. The Wildcats can be the first with a win. If they lose, and Marquette defeats Georgetown, they will be co-champions and tiebreakers will be used to determine seeding.
The Big East office said that in the event of a first-place tie, and a St. John’s win at Xavier that would enable to Red Storm to finish in third, the Wildcats would be the No. 1 seed because the Johnnies swept the Golden Eagles.