Villanova's Big East schedule pops with some big-time early games - Saturday at Creighton, next Wednesday at Butler. At both stops, Villanova's top national ranking will be very much at risk.
A home game first against DePaul? Yeah, whatever. The schedule practically spelled it out - finish off the 7-6 Blue Demons, head for the Midwest. Villanova fans couldn't have shown up at the Pavilion on Wednesday expecting much of a fight in the actual Big East opener.
The risk factor here? Turned out to be off the charts. A hang-around special. DePaul grabbed a lead late in the second half, traded it back and forth, and back and forth some more, staying in it until a final buzzer shot before Villanova held on, 68-65.
There was a reason for the escape. Josh Hart did nothing but help his national player of the year credentials. The senior nailed a three-pointer off a Kris Jenkins screen, shot clock winding down, 9.5 seconds left. Hart had 25 points and already had provided an important late stretch, taking the ball strong into traffic on two straight possessions, earning a basket and then a three-point play.
So that finished things? No, DePaul (7-7 overall, 0-1 Big East) scored before and after those plays. Villanova (13-0, 1-0) also needed a two-man blocked shot from Mikal Bridges and Darryl Reynolds, a couple of Jalen Brunson free throws with 4.4 seconds left, and then a pretty good look by DePaul's Billy Garrett Jr. to miss at the buzzer.
Among the big Blue Demons plays, Eli Cain from Willingboro whipped a pass inside, converted by Brandon Cyrusto draw DePaul within 63-62 with 37 seconds left.
"Josh, as the all-American he is, scored 10 point in the last three minutes - that kind of hurt us a lot and carried them over the top," said DePaul coach Dave Leitao. "That's what veterans are about."
Jay Wright gave DePaul all the credit for controlling how this game was played. Asked about poise at the end, Wright said, "I don't know that tonight counted as poise. We made one more one-on-one play."
Wright made a more damning statement about some stretches: "We lost our discipline."
Can't argue when you need a DePaul three-pointer to miss on a night when the visitors made only three of 17 threes. Imagine if the Blue Demons had been hot?
The back and forth had started earlier. A three-pointer by DePaul's Tre'Darius McCallum had pulled the Blue Demons even and a tip-in by Joe Hanel put them ahead with just over six minutes left.
There was no sign of panic from 'Nova. Brunson made a couple of big plays at Villanova's offensive end, splitting two defenders for a layup, drawing a body foul outside.
The hang-around portion started earlier in the half, DePaul within 39-35 with 15 minutes left, before Jenkins hit a three and Brunson scored on the break and again on a drive, and Villanova's defense had to turn up the pressure. A 51-39 lead looked safe. It wasn't. Time for a 14-0 DePaul run that included a deep three by Cain.
In the first half, a deep Jenkins three put the Wildcats up 30-22, but they couldn't extend it, with some open looks not falling and the turnover count up to nine by the intermission. Hart was the only one of the seven regulars who didn't have one.
DePaul would have been right in it or ahead early except the Blue Demons took nine three-pointers in the half and made none. Leitao talked about how his team is 7-7 because sometimes his players do good things and sometimes they sputter, even on this night.
The interesting thing, obviously: The same could be said about the 13-0 team. The Wildcats just had the right guy making one more one-on-one play.