JAY WRIGHT and the Villanova Wildcats are no strangers to the big stage. They have played and responded well in their fair share of big games, and playing No. 2 Syracuse will be no different, even if it is no longer the Big East matchup it was a year ago.
Villanova is No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, thanks to a surprising 11-0 start that included wins over then-No. 2 Kansas and No. 22 Iowa. Tomorrow, the Wildcats will get arguably their biggest test of the season as they travel to the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., to battle the 11-0 Orange at 2 p.m.
"This is a new test for this group, and that's really what a season is all about," Wright said. "It's the first real road game and the first time in a dome for a lot of these guys. It's the first time with two undefeateds. It's all that stuff. It's going to be great for us, one way or another, and you embrace the challenge and excitement around all of it, and I think the guys are really excited."
The Wildcats are off to their best start since the 1961-62 season and are 11-0 for only the fourth time, but know they will have their hands full with the Orange offense. Coach Jim Boeheim's group, now in the Atlantic Coast Conference, has averaged 76.5 points per game in 11 contests, led by senior forward C.J. Fair, who is averaging 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 35.5 minutes per game this season.
"I hope that our depth can have a little bit of impact on [Fair] because he can play on the perimeter and he can post you up, too, and he drives the ball really well, too," Wright said. "He's the kind of guy that sometimes you got to give a lot of help and [Syracuse] is smart. If you give too much help, that's when [Trevor] Cooney gets going, that's when they get you on the offensive glass."
Last January, in their final meeting as Big East rivals, Villanova was led by guard Darrun Hilliard, who scored 25 points as the unranked Wildcats defeated the No. 3 Orange, 75-71, at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Wildcats feel prepared for the challenges associated with playing at the Carrier Dome.
"It's just another game," Hilliard said. "No matter where we are playing at, it's going to be tough, and you're not going to be able to hear yourself think."
"As much of an impact as the fans have, and they do, the vastness of the arena - you're just not used to playing in an open space like that," Wright said. "I think that really is what affects guys the most, that's why getting there early and getting a day of practice in is important."
In addition to solid play from guards James Bell and Hilliard, the Wildcats have gotten help from Josh Hart, who is averaging 9.5 points. The freshman is coming off his best performance, scoring 19 points in an 88-67 win over Rider last Saturday.
"He's lived up to your hopes," Wright said. "You always have high hopes for these guys when they come in, and if they don't reach them immediately, you're not disappointed, because every freshman can go through things differently. He's definitely lived up to our hopes and expectations, and that's exciting when that happens so quick in a guy's career."
Tomorrow's matchup also offers a family reunion, as Villanova sophomore Dylan Ennis will square off against his brother, Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. After spending Christmas together, Dylan said he believes it is important to keep his composure while playing against his younger brother.
"I think that's the biggest thing when you see another family member out there," he said. "The competitor in me overshadows the brother in me. He's my brother for 364 days out of the year. The 1 day out we are playing each other, he is my competitor."
Villanova's offense has averaged 82.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field, and it will be challenged by Boeheim's famous zone defense.
"They have long, athletic guys that can get out there and block shots," Hilliard said. "We're going to prepare for that, and we can't exactly match their length, but we just have to play hard."
While Wright has liked the way his team has played, he has been most impressed with how his team has handled their 11-0 start.
"I've been very impressed with how they've handled everything, and I think it really speaks to Tony Chennault, James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkson and Darrun Hilliard," Wright said. "They are juniors and seniors, and they have seen a lot and been through a lot. I think they've kept everybody really focused."
Although the Wildcats will be the underdogs, they expect results similar to the early season surprises they already provided to ranked opponents.
"We've been through this before," Hilliard said. "We've been through it when no one else was talking about the game. We played Syracuse last year, Georgetown last year and Kansas this year and it's just another game. It doesn't really mean anything more or less."