All the success that Villanova has achieved in the Big East Tournament usually begins with a minor inconvenience.
The Wildcats will be seeking their fourth consecutive tournament championship, and fifth in the seven years since the conference was reconfigured, when they tip off for their quarterfinal game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.
But just as what has happened in each of the previous six years since 2014, Villanova has no idea as to the identity of its opponent until just before the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday night.
In this case, the Cats will take on DePaul, the No. 10 seed. The Blue Demons defeated Xavier, 71-67, in the nightcap of the opening-round doubleheader behind 23 points and 12 rebounds from Paul Reed. The game will be played under a restricted attendance policy, with only essential personnel and immediate family members of players admitted.
In this case, the Cats will play the winner of the second game of the opening-round doubleheader when seventh-seeded Xavier takes on 10th-seeded DePaul. The game that will go on as scheduled with fans under the backdrop of the NCAA’s decision that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments starting next week would limit attendance to essential personnel and some family members.
Surely, the uncertainty about their first opponent hasn’t hurt the Wildcats except for in 2014, when as a No. 1 seed they were eliminated by No. 8 Seton Hall, 64-63, in their initial game of that tournament. But they’ve ended up in the championship game every year since then.
“I think it is a challenge of balance,” coach Jay Wright said earlier this week. “You don’t want to spend too much time on two different teams and you also want to be prepared. So we’ve got to concentrate on what we do.
“We’ll do a little bit on the things that they both do that are similar. Then the next day in walkthrough, we’ll really concentrate on the one team.”
The Wildcats went 2-0 during the regular season against each Xavier and DePaul but struggled with both at home in games when the physical presence and length of each opponent provided an edge under the boards. Villanova also did not shoot well from three-point range in either game against Xavier, the league leader in three-point defense.
The Cats have gone 14-1 in the tournament in the last five years, but the current team is shorter on experience than previous teams. Five freshmen and sophomores are part of the rotation. Two freshmen start: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, named Big East freshman of the year Wednesday, and Justin Moore.
Then there is the matter of getting accustomed to the atmosphere at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats played there in January and defeated St. John’s, but the arena looks and sounds completely different at tournament time. Wright said his team benefited from a shootaround before that game.
“If you’re a junior or a senior here, you’ve played in there so many times that you don’t need it,” he said. “Besides home, that’s probably where we play the most. But for these freshmen, we wanted to get a shootaround in there because it’s different.