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For Villanova, Big East basketball exams about to start

From top to bottom, the Big East might be the toughest conference in the nation. Play will begin Wednesday.

Jalen Brunson and his Villanova teammates will open Big East play Wednesday night.
Jalen Brunson and his Villanova teammates will open Big East play Wednesday night.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

If it still had schools with major college football programs, the Big East would be considered equal to the Power Five conferences.

Realignment fueled by football damaged the Big East more than any other league. Basketball, however, is not football.

The conference's flagship sport brought in programs with the same quality of the ones that left and remains a major player in basketball, even if its name is no longer geographically appropriate. Entering conference play, which will start Wednesday, the Big East has an aggregate record of 98-23 (.810), the best nonconference mark since 1988-89 (.831).

Beginning with No. 1 Villanova (12-0), the Big East has No. 6 Xavier (12-1), No. 23 Seton Hall (11-2)  and No. 25 Creighton (10-2) in the rankings. Only the Big 12 has more ranked teams, with six.

The Big East went 22-17 against Power Five teams.

"I think the league has been great again," said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose team will open at Seton Hall. "There's some really nice marquee wins across the league.

"We've had a national champion in Villanova, so I'm not sure the top of the league is any better than it's been. … I think the teams at the bottom and the teams in the middle have certainly improved. I think the depth of our league is going to be the strength of our league."

Villanova was at the top of the Big East preseason poll, and the Wildcats, who will open the conference schedule at DePaul, have only confirmed their position by being ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks.

The Wildcats (12-0) have beaten the Blue Demons 14 consecutive times, but, in his second stint as head coach, Dave Leitao put together a challenging nonconference schedule that featured five games against teams from Power Five conferences.

"There's always been a certain formula or mindset in wanting to grow your team so that you are ready to take on quality teams in a tough conference versus playing teams of a lesser caliber that are winnable on paper," Leitao said. "You try to strike a balance.

"I thought with this schedule we were going to play teams that would challenge us physically, mentally and emotionally at the highest level. Where we are at and where we want to go with our program, I thought it was a good time to do that."

The Blue Demons (7-5) will certainly get all those challenges against the top-ranked Wildcats.

Last season, under remarkably similar circumstances, DePaul came to the Main Line and came within a final possession of upsetting an undefeated and No. 1-ranked Villanova team.

Lessons like that, however, work as an advantage for a veteran team such as the Wildcats, who have learned from experience that there is a difference between facing random opponents and conference opponents that play against you each season in a home-and-home round-robin.

In juniors Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth, 'Nova has three leaders who have ample experience in digesting the complexities that come with Big East play and helping younger teammates get through it.

"We're going to rely on these veterans in these early conference games," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "[Experience] does have an impact, and that's one of the reasons why I think DePaul will be a tough matchup because they have guys who have been in this league.

"Once you get into conference play, the familiarity with the style of play, the intensity, the personnel – the older guys have that. A lot of things that worked in nonconference play will not be working in this game, so it is really important that our older players step up and bring the younger guys along."

Starting Wednesday, for every Big East team, it'll be 18 games against league competition over nine weeks, and then, oh yeah, it'll be the Big East tournament.

"As I look at the league, I just don't think there are any easy outs," McDermott said. "Everywhere you go, it's going to be a dogfight."