There were three factors that added more drama before the opening tip of the contest between Villanova and Xavier. The first element of the story developed on New Year’s Eve, when the Musketeers were manhandled by Villanova by a final score of 95-64 and even before the final buzzer sounded, many pundits were calling for a different Xavier team to show up for the rematch.
Another factor that added to the drama was the ranking of both squads entering the national televised game. The anticipation became palpable on February 8th as Villanova became for the 1st time in school history the number one ranked team in the country. Xavier was not to be outdone and they were able to elevate their ranking to number 5 in the nation. Finally, both teams entered the contest with the identical overall record of 24-3 and something had to give.
The first half was back and forth action between the two combatants. Villanova was able to break out to a 19-13 lead, but Xavier responded and J.P. Macura was able to hit back-to-back threes that gave Xavier a 36-27 lead. Xavier would spot their vaunted 1-3-1 defense and Villanova would use their full court pressure. At the expiration of the first half the score was a 40-37 in favor of the Musketeers.
As the second half played out Villanova’s major liability, their lack of size, was exposed and manipulated by Xavier. Daniel Ochefu, the biggest and best interior threat for Nova, committed his fourth foul early in the second half and was on the bench for nearly 10 minutes. Compounding the problem was 6-foot-8 Kris Jenkins fouling out with 8:47 left. Jenkins was having a career night by scoring 19 in the first half and finished with 22, but that could not deter Xavier.
The Musketeers were able to dominate the glass and prevent Villanova from gaining second chance opportunities with Ochefu and Jenkins on the sideline. Xavier was able to penetrate the lane without the threat of a shot blocker and finish plays at the rim with ease. As the game reached its waning moments, the outcome was no longer in doubt. Xavier was able to secure a win against the number one team in the country.
So, did this game live up to the hype? To the casual collegiate basketball fan and the Villanova basketball fan, this game will not be memorable. There was no buzzer beater and ‘Nova’s loss at the Cintas Center to Xavier will not be considered an upset. The fans in Cincinnati will always remember tonight not because of how the game was played but who won the game. All the loyal Musketeer fans can revel in the exaltation of knocking off the current king of the mountain.
While this contest did not live up to the hype, there is a possibility both teams can meet again. The Big East Championship will be played at the hollow ground of Madison Square Garden on the night of March 12. The way the brackets will be drawn, there will be one way both these teams meet again for a rubber match, and that would be in the Big East conference title game. Now, what better time to have round three between these two heavyweight programs?
Photo: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
PHILADELPHIA – Though the top ranked Villanova Wildcats came into the Liacouras Center this past Wednesday and seemingly dominated the Temple Owls in front of a sold out crowd, one player for Fran Dunphy refused to go down without a fight.
“Trey Lowe seized the moment,” Dunphy proudly said after the game. “It was terrific to watch two freshman go like that. No fear -- they just wanted that opportunity.”
The other freshman Dunphy was referring to was Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, a good friend of Lowe and a familiar name in the Philadelphia community.
Brunson dominated Temple from the game’s outset, leading the Wildcats’ to a 35-23 halftime lead with a team high 8 points in the first half.
In the second half, Villanova as a team was able to take advantage of the early double-digit lead by pressuring the Owls into bad shots and turnovers to make the disparity even larger. With 10 minutes left in regulation, Villanova led Temple by 23, sucking the life out of not only the Owl fans, but the entire team as well.
Though the upperclassmen seemed deflated by the insurmountable lead they let balloon, Trey Lowe was the Owl to bring life back to the cherry-and-white.
A three pointer by Lowe at the 7:37 mark in the second half closed the gap to 15 points. Though the advantage still seemed a bit too large considering the time left and the discipline of the number one team in the nation, the crowd started to buzz following the triple.
Then on the next possession, Trey Lowe and Josh Brown trapped Villanova’s Josh Hart into a turnover, and in transition, Lowe hit his second consecutive three to cut the lead to 12. This brought the Liacouras Center crowd to a roar that hadn’t been that loud since the first time Temple scored in the game.
Despite the momentum completely turning over to Temple, Jalen Brunson, the star freshman for Jay Wright’s veteran team, calmly drew a foul on the next trip down the floor to push the lead back to 14 with 7 minutes left in the game.
The quick offensive exchanges by the two New Jersey natives brought an unexpected intensity to what seemed to be a game that was already decided.
Then, the fans got a little taste of the neophytes once again at the 3:50 mark in the second half.
With a 14 point Villanova lead, after the upperclassmen on both teams traded buckets for multiple possessions, Trey Lowe was able to get his hands on the ball and draw a foul. He made both free throws to cut the Wildcat lead to 12, but for Villanova, Jalen Brunson wanted to answer back.
Answering back is exactly what the freshmen did for the top ranked Wildcats, scoring on an acrobatic, up-and-under layup to put the Wildcats up 73-59.
Trey Lowe brushed off Brunson’s rapid answer with a response of his own, drilling a corner three to bring Temple within 11 points with 3:21 left in the game, the closest they had been since the first half.
However, Brunson came out and scored the next basket of the game, pushing the lead back up to 13 with two minutes left that ultimately put the game out of reach.
Lowe would have the last shot though, draining a pull-up three with under a minute to go to give him his 21st point of the game, a career high for the young Owl.
At the game’s conclusion, Lowe ended up scoring 14 points in the final 10 minute comeback effort, more than half of Temple’s 27 points scored during that duration. 19 of Trey Lowe’s 21 total points came in the second half, proving that he truly refused to back down to the challenge.
For the winning squad, Brunson scored a game high 25 points, which included a number of clutch buckets that kept the Owls out of reach in the closing minutes of regulation.
The two freshmen were the only players out of the 19 that played to scored more than 20 points.
“Jalen Brunson is a great player,” Lowe said of his 19 year-old counterpart after the game. “We played in high-school and he came into college as a known player…I figured he would come out and play his hardest game.”
When asked if he played with any of Temple’s players in casual pick-up games before, Brunson responded that he knew the freshmen class very well.
“Trey and (Levan Alston Jr.), we’re good friends,” Brunson said. “Those two I have a good relationship with. They’re great freshman and they played well.”
Though Alston has played several fine games this season, in the Villanova contest, it was clearly Lowe’s shining moment.
“We knew he was a great. We recruited him too…he was a great scorer in high-school.” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of Trey Lowe after the game. “Once he got it going, it didn’t surprise us. We were hoping, (since) he’s a freshman, he wouldn’t get it going, but he did.”
Overall, despite this year’s contest not being as close as many would prefer, the head-to-head exchanges by Lowe and Brunson may have foreshadowed what Philadelphia Big 5 and college basketball fans have in store for the next few years in this rivalry.
Hopefully, the rise of Lowe and Brunson -- and even Levan Alston Jr. -- will not only bring excitement back to the Big 5, but also make the rivalries that much more competitive, and that much more intense.
Photos: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
With more than half of the Big East regular season behind them and the calendar turning to February, Villanova finds themselves standing atop the polls as the number one team in the country. Despite their success, one must wonder how long will the Wildcats hold the top spot in the land? While the Wildcats are in the softer part of their conference schedule, there will still be certain obstacles ‘Nova will have to overcome before selection Sunday.
Currently what Villanova and the rest of the NCAA bound tournament teams are vying for is positioning in the NCAA tournament. While the highest seed does not always come away victorious in March Madness, the number one seeds usually have two distinct advantages. Firstly, they face off with the 16 seeds, who have not defeated a number 1 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament ever. Secondly, a number 1 seed drastically improves the chances of a team going to the Final Four which ‘Nova needs to reach to exercise the demons of past tourney upsets. However, Villanova still has some work to do. Here are three games that could cause issues for them in the remainder of the season.
vs. Butler on Feb. 20th
For back-to-back seasons Butler has been the surprise team in the Big East but for different reasons. Last season, Butler was the underrated team that was able to surprise the experts and compile a 23-11 record. Despite much of their roster returning this season, Butler has not matched the success of last year’s team, as they have fallen out of the top 25 and currently have a 7-7 record in conference. Yet when they matched up with Villanova on Jan. 10th, the Wildcats narrowly escaped Hinkle Fieldhouse with a 60-55 win.
Butler is a bubble team that needs marquee wins to solidify their chances of securing an NCAA tournament bid. Butler appears to be playing their best basketball as of late by winning 4 out of their last 5 games, including a road win against Seton Hall. If Butler is able to secure a road win at Villanova, the chances of Butler being called on Selection Sunday will be greatly increased.
at Xavier on Feb. 24th
The Big East opener for Villanova was a cakewalk as the Wildcats dominated the Xavier Musketeers by a score of 95-64. But unlike many other conferences, the Big East has a true home-and-home with every team. If this was another major conference, Villanova would never have to travel to Cincinnati and take on the musketeers, but ‘Nova is in the Big East. Jay Wright will have to bring his team to the Cintas Center to take on a hungry and determined Xavier team February 24th.
There are two distinct advantages that Xavier coach Chris Mack can utilize against Villanova. Firstly, the 1-3-1 zone that the Musketeers utilize could disturb the Wildcats. Many college teams prefer to rely on a straight man-to-man defense paired with a full court press. For Xavier, the 1-3-1 zone is spotted at the correct time and can befuddle the opposition. In addition, Xavier also has a distinct advantage in the frontcourt with Jalen Reynolds and James Farr who could exploit the small lineup utilized by Jay Wright.
Furthermore, Xavier manhandled a top 25 game this week in Providence, even though the Friars have been descending the polls the last few weeks. Big East Player of the Year candidate Kris Dunn and his teammates were overwhelmed from start to finish against the Musketeers. The Friars spent most of the game down by double digits and even though Providence made a late run, they could not overcome Xavier.
vs. Georgetown on March 5th
Similar to Butler, the Georgetown Hoyas have not had as much success in the 2015-16 season. They suffered tough losses against perennial powers Maryland and Duke along with ones to less prestigious programs like Radford and Monmouth. Also similar to Butler, the Hoyas suffered a 5 point loss in their first matchup at home against Villanova. Georgetown could become a desperate team which will bring a sense of urgency that could make the Hoyas a tough team in their 2nd matchup against the Wildcats.
Unlike Butler, Georgetown has not been able to pick up any wins of late, as they have dropped 5 of their last 6 games and their only victory coming against lowly St. John’s. The loss of Bradley Hayes does not help the Hoyas but Georgetown does have two potential matchup problems for the Wildcats.
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who has received many accolades during his four year career at Georgetown, could easily take over a game and lead the Hoyas to victory. Their second threat is newcomer, Jessie Govan, who could be a matchup nightmare for any team in the country. Standing at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, Govan could overpower the limited frontline of Villanova. Nevertheless, his more than capable of stepping out of the paint and hitting the 15-18 foot jumper.
Photo: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
It’s kind of funny to think that in high school, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins squared off in the Maryland state playoffs, only to go from adversaries to allies in college. Each year we’ve seen the gradual progression of Hart, going from utility player to sixth man to Big East Tournament MVP. Most recently, Hart was named a John Wooden Award candidate for national player of the year, an incredible honor for a kid who recently became a star in the eyes of the national college fan.
Hart and Jenkins were looked at from Villanova fans as a pair. They both were from outside of Washington D.C., they played at top high school programs, and were two great shooters. With Darryl Reynolds added to the mix, the trio looked to be a promising freshman class of 2013, but there wasn’t an immediate sign that these guys would be the main options going forward, being that they were from out of town and not too many fans had seen them in person.
That changed for Jenkins in the annual Blue/White Scrimmage during Villanova’s Hoops Mania his freshman season. At one point in the game, then-sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono, in transition, found Jenkins in the corner for an open three-pointer, which he nailed. This inspired a newly-found love for the young kid from Maryland that still holds true today with the 'Nova Nation.
Praised for his feel of the game, Jenkins has slowly but surely made his mark in the program ever since coming in from Gonzaga College High School. In the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Jenkins dropped 11 points in the win over Milwaukee in Buffalo, New York, opening eyes as fans looked towards the next season’s potential with #2 in the rotation. At the time though, a problem arose going forward with his weight. Jenkins checked into college at 270 pounds, but with the help of strength and conditioning coach John Shackleton, that number was trimmed down to 240. Jenkins said of the challenge, "I had to lose so much weight that I think it took a toll on me. Coach Shack helped me push through that and get over that hurdle. Now, this summer I'm working to build on what I've already done by working out with Coach Shack to just keep getting better. He's been great and that will continue to be a big part of what I do here." The weight problems didn’t detract from his ability, but ‘Nova coaches saw a position where Jenkins's long-term health would definitely benefit from slimming down, a move that has only reaped benefits. Jenkins is visibly faster and more mobile on the court compared to in years past.
The newly shaped frame added credibility to the junior’s role this season. With a healthier body, the guard has become a legitimate starter in three short seasons, starting 22 out of the 24 games so far this season and averaging a little over 27 minutes per game. Head coach Jay Wright has been able to throw Jenkins in for extended periods of time as a substitution later in the game as well, creating the fun shooting duo of Hart and Jenkins.
Continuing on with this season, Villanova faces the latter portion of their Big East schedule, with marquee matchups against Butler at home followed by back-to-back road games against #5/4 Xavier and Marquette. Villanova’s team scoring margin of +14.9 has been possible in part by Jenkins, for sure. With tons of looks from outside and a solid offensive player even in the post, Kris Jenkins has contributed his fair share. Not just this season, but in the long run of his time at Villanova. Often, the overlooked piece in the whole equation still has a lot to show, and he still has a ton to prove.
Photo: USA TODAY Sports Image
After compiling a 20-3 overall record so far this season, the Villanova Wildcats are now ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in their storied history. This is the second time the Wildcats have been ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll, the last time being in April of 1985.
The Wildcats have reached the No. 2 ranking on six previous occasions, the most recent coming after their 2015 Big East Tournament championship triumph.
The Wildcats will look to stay atop both polls this week when they travel to Chicago to face DePaul tomorrow.
Photo: Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship