One of the unique days in Villanova’s recent basketball history came slightly less than three years ago in the Wildcats’ penultimate game at the Pavilion before the building underwent a $65 million renovation.
The date, Feb. 22, 2017, marked the only loss by the Wildcats in a Big East game on campus since the reconfiguration of the conference starting with the 2013-14 season. And that defeat came against Butler, a game in which freshman Kamar Baldwin played a pivotal role.
Baldwin and the 13th-ranked Bulldogs (15-3, 3-2 Big East) return Tuesday night to a brighter and louder building now known as Finneran Pavilion, where the Cats are 29-1 in the Big East in the last six-plus seasons. The visitors come in on the heels of back-to-back losses at home to Seton Hall and at DePaul, a team that took the Cats to overtime last week at the Finn.
“In this year’s Big East, you can catch a team hot,” ‘Nova coach Jay Wright said Monday. “DePaul was hot, they should have had us. Seton Hall, [Butler] had a 10-point lead at halftime and [Myles] Powell just made great plays down the stretch.
“We know they’re an outstanding team. They always give us a tough game. So we’re ready to respect a great Butler team.”
The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1), who moved up to a season-best No. 9 ranking Monday in the Associated Press top 25, will face one of the best defenses in the nation. Butler leads the conference in points allowed (57.1, fifth in Division I), three-point defense (27.9, 12th), and field goal defense (37.7%, 15th).
The Bulldogs also top the Big East with a plus-6.6 rebound margin, winning the battle of the boards in 15 of their 18 games. Rebounding has been an area of concern lately for the Cats, who have been outdone on the boards in their last two games, including a 35-23 deficit in Saturday’s 61-55 win over Connecticut.
“Some games it just turns out like the UConn game,” Wright said. “They had a lot of dead-ball rebounds, balls that got knocked out of bounds that could have gone either way. So you always look at the unique situations. It’s not concerning me yet, but it’s definitely something that’s on my radar.”
The Wildcats have won 10 of 11 and each of their last four. Their last seven victories have come by an average margin of 6.3 points. They have had a different high scorer in their last three games — Saddiq Bey’s 33 against Georgetown, Collin Gillespie’s 21 vs. DePaul and Jermaine Samuels’ 19 against UConn.
“It just shows that’s we’re comfortable making plays for each other at any point in the game,” Samuels said. “We all trust in each other. Regardless if the ball goes in or not, we’re going to stick together. That’s the biggest thing about each other — we’re all unselfish.”
Baldwin averages 18.2 points in Big East play and provides veteran leadership for Butler along with senior forward Sean McDermott, who shoots 42.2% from beyond the arc and 86.8% on free throws.
“As much as he scores and as creative as he is offensively, Kamar scares you in end-of-game situations by getting a steal,” Wright said. “He’s hurt us by just making great defensive plays at the end of games as much as he’s hurt us scoring.”
And Wright still remembers the 2017 game, which was the Cats’ senior night when Baldwin scored 15 points in the 74-66 Butler win.