Villanova is, again, the team to beat in the Big East

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Jay Wright may not want to hear it — and you can be absolutely sure he’ll have his players minds’ focusing strictly on Seton Hall Wednesday and nothing else.

But after smashing previously unbeaten No. 6 ranked Xavier 95-64 at home Thursday, then silencing a raucous Omaha crowd late Saturday night in a convincing 85-71 win over Creighton, once again it appears the Big East runs through Villanova this season.

And the 12-2 Wildcats seem to have all the ingredients to defend their crown, including a home court where they’ve become virtually invincible.

“It’s too early to say who the team to beat in the big East is,” said Wright, after ‘Nova dismantled a 12-0 Xavier team that was clearly distracted when freshman point guard Edmond Sumner had to be taken off the court on a stretcher after hitting his head on the floor in the opening minutes. “What I can say is this league is really good.We’ve played really well but there still a lot of basketball left.”

They further stated their case Saturday and now return to their cozy Pavilion, where Villanova has won its last 34 games, stretching back to a 2013 loss to Providence. Those with long memories will recall how tough the Wildcatsused to be playing at their old Field House, where the fans were literally on top of the players.

While the Pavilion’s not quite that small, it’s still turned into the same kind of chamber of horrors for visitors as Kansas’ Allen Field House or Duke’s Cameron Indoor or Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“Our guys love playing here,” said Wright, whose team blistered the Pavilion rims at a 63% clip, starting off by knocking down 14 of its first 17 shots, including six 3-pointers. “It’s always a great home court advantage and no matter who we play here always sold out (168 straight sellouts).I know it’s not the biggest place, but our students get into it.”

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The Musketeers won’t argue, as Villanova made them their 12th Pavilion victim in 15 tries when both teams were top 25 ranked.

“I give the building a little credit,” said a shell-shocked Xavier coach Chris Mack, whose team bounced back from its New Year’s Eve debacle to stomp No. 9 Butler 88-69, Saturday. “but I give the guys in the [Villanova]uniforms a lot more credit.”

Ryan Arcidiacono did most of the damage in that one, pouring in 27 points, including seven treys. Two nights later at Creighton, it was Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu who took turns tormenting the Blue Jays with 25 and 19 points respectively, shooting a combined 19-for-24. Next comes the 12-2 The Hall, coming off a 16-15 season which included a 66-61 overtime upset of the Wildcats. Villanova crushed the Pirates 80-54 in the rematch at the Pavilion, then followed that up with an 89-61 romp over Providence.

Such blowouts have become the rule at the Pavilion rather than the exception, whether or not the students are on hand. Being on break, they weren’t against Xavier and don’t figure to be out in force against Seton Hall, either. But it hasn’t seemed to matter.

“What really impressed me was that I got here an hour and half before the game and everyone was here,” said Wright, now in his 15th season “Usually I get here an hour and a quarter before that game and there aren’t that many.Whoever filled those seats was outstanding. This place was rocking.”

Nearly as much as the first time Ochefu saw the place as a potential recruit in 2011.

“My first game here was on (ESPN) Game Day against Pitt,” recalled Ochefu of the then No. 9 Willdcats’ 57-54 loss to the then No. 4 ranked Panthers. “It was insane.The fans are amazing here. But I wasn’t worried about the arena when I was making my decision. I was worried the type of coaching staff we had and the type of guys on the team.I made the perfect decision coming here.”

Now, like Arcidiacono, a senior, they’ve become key cogs in the Nova machine that has shown it can function well anywhere. Despite glitches in Pearl Harbor against Oklahoma and at Virginia – currently 12-0 and 12-1 respectively — these Wildcats seem like a team that will be a force to reckon with in the Big East and nationally over the next two months. After that who knows?

Because once Villanova gets to March, of course, it’s been a different story.

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