MOST FOLKS felt this was probably going to be a bumpy transition.
We're about to get a much better idea of precisely how turbulent the ride could be.
Villanova's basketball team, with no seniors and five first-year players, begins its Big East season tonight at West Virginia (9-3). The Wildcats, who were picked to finish eighth, are 7-5 after opening 4-0. The Mountaineers were voted seventh. The Wildcats are 3 years removed from a Final Four. The Mountaineers, who will soon be moving to the Big 12, got there in 2010.
Last year the conference sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament. One, Connecticut, cut down the final nets, after somehow winning five games in as many days to win the Big East title as the ninth seed. The Big East will not be putting that many teams into the Madness this March. But six are ranked in the top 16, including No. 1 Syracuse, which will be in South Philly on Jan. 11. Right now the Wildcats, who have been a part of every four-letter field since 2005, look like they might have some work to do just to make sure they're eligible for the NIT.
They already have two more nonconference losses than they accumulated the last three seasons combined. But again, the struggles, especially early, were somewhat anticipated. Only now everything figures to get amped up another notch or more.
The last time the Wildcats visited Morgantown, 2 years ago, they won by seven to end a four-game losing streak there. That got them to 19-1, with a team that had Scottie Reynolds. Last season, with three senior starters, they won by 16 at the Wells Fargo Center. That made them 19-4, but they then dropped eight of their last 10.
The Mountaineers, who are coming off a two-point overtime loss to Top 10 Baylor in Las Vegas, have senior forward Kevin Jones, who leads the Big East in scoring (21.0 points per game) and rebounding (11.9). Against Baylor, freshman guard Jabarie Hinds had 18 points and seven assists. Should we mention that West Virginia missed seven of its 15 foul shots?
The Wildcats are coming off a 21-point home win over American, the team that had them by double-digits early in the second half of their first-round 2009 NCAA, a 3 vs. 14 matchup at the Center. Seems like such a long time ago. Anyway, the Wildcats' freshmen did account for 40 of their 73 points this time, so maybe that's a decent sign. Jay Wright could use some. Inconsistency has been the biggest issue, and might continue to be. Particularly from the perimeter.
Lead guard Maalik Wayns is averaging 17.4, which may or may not in the long term be a good thing. Two other juniors, swingman Dominic Cheek and forward Mouphtaou Yarou, are also scoring in double figures. But additional help is never bad. It's always a process. Some turn out to be more laborious than others.
Eventually, a lot of factors could all kick in. That point is probably still down the road.
Speaking of which, after this the Wildcats go to No. 10 Marquette, where they'll spend New Year's for the third time in 4 years. Doesn't sound logistically correct, but what can you do other than play the hand? Before January is over they'll get Marquette again, this time at the Center, following a trip to No. 4 Louisville. Then they start February - a month that also includes a back-to-back with No. 8 Connecticut here and No. 16 Georgetown there - at No. 15 Pittsburgh. It's the Big East for a reason, even without 11 NCAA bids.
The Wildcats went 9-9 in the conference last season, after being picked to finish second. Now the expectations are, well, different. What that means, we're about to find out. In the meantime, the sole goal from within is to be a better team at some point than they are at the moment. And, hopefully, sooner than the alternative.