Jermaine Samuels knows what Villanova is getting into Tuesday night in Providence, his 10th-ranked Wildcats against the eighth-ranked Friars. A big game for Villanova. A huge game for Providence.
“You know you’re not going to hear yourself think,” said Samuels, a veteran of past battles at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, won and lost.
Monday after practice, Villanova players and Jay Wright were asked about whether this was a litmus test. There was a party line to the answers: “Our next game is our biggest game,” as Justin Moore put it.
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Well, that means Providence is the biggest game, and the Big East standings happen to confirm it. Ed Cooley’s team has the conference lead, trying to push it to three games in the loss column with four games left to play, Villanova trying to get within a game of the Friars, with a Providence trip to the Finneran Pavilion still ahead.
It was noted that Providence, 21-2 overall, undefeated at home, hadn’t been in a battle of two top-10 Big East teams in five years, and never against Villanova, now 19-6.
Providence has never won a Big East regular-season title.
Moore and Collin Gillespie both were back practicing Monday for Villanova, although Wright said they maybe went for half the practice, nothing too strenuous, not the live stuff. Asked about it being a fine line whether to play through their ankle injuries, Wright said it was, but at this point of the year if players are shut down, it can take time to get them back to full speed, so there isn’t an obvious right path, and both players want to play.
Not new, this big-game stuff for Villanova, even this season. UCLA and Baylor were both in the top five nationally when the Wildcats visited early in the season. An OT loss to the Bruins was one side of the coin, a wipeout at Baylor the other.
“A big game, we’re playing the top team in the conference, we’re playing on the road,” Wright said, not downplaying all the factors in play. “Two top-10 teams. This is why you come to Villanova. This is why these guys come here to play — play in games like this. I hope both teams put together a game that lives up to the hype.”
Is there an underdog in a game like this, with Providence leading the conference?
“We could be, but we don’t talk about that,” said Wright, coming off a survival-test W over Seton Hall. “They’re leading the conference. We’re playing at their place. I get that. I wouldn’t dismiss it. We don’t use that when we talk to the players.”
They all know the joint will be jumping.
“Buildings are great,” Wright said. “But the team that plays in the building usually is what makes it.”
Litmus test for the visitors?
“It’s just next step for us,” Wright said. “I would probably say I’m not a litmus-test guy. It’s just next game. I get the hype and everything, and it’s real. I feel like we’re trying to get into a rhythm, we’re just trying to get guys healthy where we can practice together. … We’re just trying to survive here, really.”
They’ll learn a lot, Wright added. Most of all, they’ll learn whether they have a realistic chance for another Big East regular-season title, or if Providence is ready to make Big East history.