When the Big East preseason predictions came out, Villanova and Seton Hall pretty much split the vote to finish as champion of the regular season. The conference coaches’ balloting showed the Pirates nosing out the Wildcats by one point.
So now the stage is set. Tenth-ranked Villanova (17-5, 7-3) and No. 12 Seton Hall (17-5, 9-1) will clash Saturday for the first time this season. A sellout crowd of more than 20,000 is expected to fill Wells Fargo Center and make enough noise to approximate the loudest rock concert.
For the two teams, however, it’s business as usual, or at least that’s what the coaches say. The Big East presents its members with a difficult test every game. The desire to win is enormous, but the coaches are careful not to put all their emphasis on one game when there are more to come.
For Wildcats coach Jay Wright, it’s educating his young players about playing hard for 40 minutes no matter the opponent, then preparing the same way for the next game.
“There’s going to be a next game after that,” Wright said Thursday. “In this league, you don’t get quality points for beating Seton Hall. It’s a win if you win. And in the same sense, it’s not a bad loss. You can recover and come back, and you’ve got to be ready for the next game. So we really do take the next-game mentality. You can’t put too much on any game in this conference.”
Pirates coach Kevin Willard, who has led his program to four consecutive 20-win seasons and trips to the last four NCAA Tournaments, said Big East play means big games, and this is another one.
“It’s a huge game but I think at this time of year, more than anything, every game’s a big game,” he said. “So I think our guys are excited. What I love about this group more than anything is that, I think they’ve been excited to go out and battle every night so far, whether it’s ‘Nova, Creighton, Georgetown.
“I just think that the middle of February in this conference, it’s the most exciting time for college basketball. So I think they’re excited just to go out and compete again, and obviously compete against the best program in the conference for the last five years.”
Villanova and Seton Hall have had some monumental battles in the Big East Tournament. Since conference reorganization in 2013-14, the two teams have met four times in Madison Square Garden, going 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the championship game. The Cats have won by two points each time, and lost by one and two points.
However, it’s been a different story on the Main Line and in South Philadelphia. The Cats hold a 17-game home winning streak (15 at the Pavilion, two at Wells Fargo Center) dating back to 1994. In the last six years of the “new” Big East, Villanova has won all six by an average margin of 21 points.
The Pirates of 2019-20, however, aren’t intimidated on the road this season as depicted by their 5-0 conference record. And they come in with one of the nation’s best guards in senior Myles Powell, who averages 22.0 points per game and scored 34 in Wednesday’s 78-71 win at Georgetown.
“When he’s making shots it can be really scary because his range is incredible and his ability to finish at the rim is elite,” Wright said.
The Wildcats have struggled on defense, especially interior defense, in each of the last two games. They’ve allowed a combined 76 points in the paint against Creighton and Butler with both opponents shooting better than 50% from the floor.