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As Villanova starts Big East play, Jay Wright’s Wildcats remain a work in progress

The Wildcats moved up to No. 10 in the rankings after defeating No. 1 Kansas. They open conference play against defense-minded Xavier.

Villanova's Jermaine Samuels drives to the basket during the Wildcats' win over Kansas.
Villanova's Jermaine Samuels drives to the basket during the Wildcats' win over Kansas.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

In the days when he coached veteran teams at Villanova, Jay Wright liked to think his players would have things figured out by the start of the Big East season.

But with no seniors on his team, and a rotation of three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen, the Wildcats (9-2) remain a work in progress even if they are ranked No. 10 in the nation on the heels of their Dec. 21 win over No. 1 Kansas.

Winners of five regular-season championships in the first six years of the reconfigured Big East, the Cats open their conference season Monday night against Xavier (11-2) at Finneran Pavilion.

Villanova is 5-0 in December with three wins coming against Big 5 teams, but Wright said one of his biggest tasks is to help his players find more consistency.

“We were taking what the defense gave us in those Big 5 games but we did it too much,” he said Sunday after practice. “We wanted to adjust and then we adjusted too much in the Kansas game. So it’s just part of an inexperienced team just trying to find our way.

“I think we were fortunate that we’re still learning, and we were able to get some wins learning. That’s the best way to do it as long as they keep a good mindset, a good growth mindset, and I think our guys are doing that.”

Wright also liked the way the Wildcats practiced during their eight days off.

“They know we have to get a lot better,” he said. “It certainly didn’t seem like they overreacted to the Kansas game and they came back focused, and I’m happy about the way they worked.”

Jermaine Samuels, who scored 15 points, including the decisive three-point basket, in the win over the Jayhawks, said the team has practiced well.

“Even though we had a couple of days off, it’s been great practices,” he said. “We’ve been getting a lot better coming in with fresh minds, open to coaching and continue to get better and playing harder. That’s what it’s all about.”

The Musketeers, who have won five of their last six games and have been ranked in the Associated Press top 25 for five weeks this season, have a veteran team with four returning starters. Junior Naji Marshall leads them in scoring with a 16.2-point average, and senior Tyrique Jones is one of the Big East’s top rebounders, especially off the offensive glass.

Xavier is among the conference leaders on defense, allowing 63.7 points per game, 38.6% shooting overall and 29.2% from three-point range.

The Wildcats went 2-1 against the Musketeers last season, including a 71-67 overtime win in the Big East Tournament semifinals.

“They beat us last year at Xavier,” Wright said. “In the Big East Tournament, watching that game, I kind of felt like we got a little fortunate at the end, hit some huge shots, they missed some. They’re very physical. They’re always a tough team for us to play.”