Villanova determined to reclaim Big East Championship, off to furious start

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Villanova’s defending national champions will have a wait a week before bidding to become the first team since Florida in 2007 to go back-to-back. But before any of that gets underway— most likely in Buffalo next Thursday—Jay Wright’s Wildcats have one other thing on their agenda.

The Big East championship, which many may forget amid all the celebrating last April when Kris Jenkins hit the shot they’ll never forget, managed to elude them. The title instead went to Seton Hall, which held off Nova’s second half rally from 40-29 down, 69-67.

In fact, despite winning four straight regular season Big East crowns, the Cats are just 1-for-3 so far when it comes to taking home the hardware, knocking off Xavier in the 2015 finale. In 2014 The Hall ambushed them in the first round.

And through the years the Garden has been anything but friendly, not only for Wright but predecessors Steve Lappas and Rollie Massimino. Despite being top seed five times and No. 2 three others, Villanova has only won the Big East tournament twice.

In 1995 Kerry Kittles led Lappas’ No. 2 seeded 25-8 squad past Connecticut 94-76 in the title game. But that success was short lived. A week later the Wildcats were upset in the NCAA first round by Old Dominion in triple overtime. In a similar vein after Nova took down Xavier 69-52 two years ago to win it, the momentum didn’t last for long despite being top seed in the East. After disposing of Lafayette 93-52 the Wildcats were stunned by N.C. State, 71-68.

That means just as Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, Jenkins and company came up short in the conference last year, but shook it off to win it all, so did Massimino’s 1985 gang. After going down for the third time that season to St. John’s featuring Chris Mullin, Villanova entered the NCAA’s a No. 8 seed.

Thirty-two years later they remain the lowest seed to cut down the nets.

None of that meant a thing Thursday as the Wildcats opened the Big East Tournament with an overpowering 108-67win against Georgetown to advance to Round 2 Friday. T hey’ll have a quick turnaround and play in the 6:30 opener of Friday’s semifinal twin-bill against the Marquette-Seton Hall winner.

Not that Wright ever preaches it, but there will be revenge in the air either way, considering Steve Wojciechowksi’s Warriors handed them one of their three defeats. The Pirates won’t figure to give up their conference crown — and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it — without a fight.

Theoretically, that would leave a potential showdown against Butler for Saturday’s 5:30 championship game. But before you can pencil in the Cats and Dogs for the third time, Butler will have to take care of business in its bracket, which includes Xavier, Creighton and Providence.

Nice as all that sounds, no one on either side is looking ahead.

“We know it’s a new season and it’s either win or go home.” said Jenkins, who had to settle for being a Big East honorable mention while co-Defensive Player of the Year Hart (along with teammate Mikal Bridges) and Brunson were unanimous first team picks. “It’s a one-game tournament from here on out.”

More than likely in Villanova’s case, though, three games before the real fun begins.

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