Villanova ruled league play in the first two seasons of the reconfigured Big East. The Wildcats went 32-4 in winning a pair of regular-season titles along with the 2015 conference tournament championship and held the highest seed of any league team in the last two NCAA tournaments.
However, those days of dominance for the Wildcats could be coming to an end. If the pre-conference season is any indication, the Big East could have its biggest free-for-all yet in terms of multiple teams scrambling to wrestle the top spot from Villanova.
Xavier leads that charge at the moment with a 12-0 record and a No. 6 national ranking. Fittingly, the Musketeers will start their conference schedule Thursday at the Pavilion against the 16th-ranked Wildcats (10-2).
"To have one of the top teams in the country and our conference coming in for the opening game is really exciting and a great test for us," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I think Xavier is playing as well as anybody in the country."
The Musketeers and the Wildcats represent one-half of the four Big East teams in the Associated Press rankings. Coincidentally, the other two - No. 9 Butler and No. 12 Providence - will open their conference season against each other Thursday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Xavier, the only Big East team to advance as far as the Sweet 16 in last season's NCAA tournament, captured its biggest non-conference wins over Michigan, Dayton, and Cincinnati. The Musketeers are having success on the boards, outrebounding opponents by nearly 13 per game, and at the free-throw line, where they have averaged 28 attempts and nearly 21 makes per game.
Coach Chris Mack said the key has been the way the team has practiced.
"Who we are every day in practice has really been a product of what happens in games," he said. "To that end, I've been pleased. But we obviously have some tremendous challenges ahead. It starts against Villanova, who's the best team in the conference until proven otherwise."
On defense, Xavier forces a conference-high 15.3 turnovers per game and has limited opponents to 30.1 percent shooting from three-point range, a place where 'Nova shoots 31 percent.
"It's a very disciplined, well-coached team," Wright said. "They're always that way, but it can just be the maturity in what they do. It's a Sweet 16 team and they're taking the right aspects from the success they had last year - hard work, commitment to defense, commitment to rebounding, unselfishness."
As for his own team's rebounding, Wright said the Wildcats "definitely" need to be better on the boards now that they are engaged in Big East play.
"We've got to block out better," he said. "We've got to pursue the ball better. We've got to have more of a commitment to it. I think we can do a lot better."