Vulnerable Villanova opens Big East play with another win

Phil Booth Villanova Wildcats DePaul Blue Devils College Basketball

Surely, this will be the year.

This will be the year the rest of the Big East, having been dominated by Villanova on a regular basis for the past five years, finally gives the Wildcats a taste of their own medicine. 

This will be the year Jay Wright & Co, forced to rebuild after four of their stars from that National Championship team jumped straight to the NBA, gets to see what it’s been like for all the rest.

Or is it?

DePaul was the first team to give it a shot on Wednesday night at the Pavilion. The Blue Demons, once a storied program when George Mikan roamed the earth and later when Mark Aguirre, Rod Strickland, Terry Cummings and Philadelphia native Dallas Comegys starred for legendary Ray Meyer, jumped on ‘Nova early and had the Wildcats on the ropes.

But that’s when Villanova’s pedigree kicked in—as it has so many times before.

“They got down and were down most of the game,” explained DePaul coach Dave Leitao, after Villanova came back from 14 points down to grind out a 73-68 win in its Big East opener Wednesday. “But there was no level of panic in everything they do.”

“If something wasn’t going well they waited for the next play. When you have enough guys on your team who’ve been in every situation—especially two fifth-year guys who’ve been to the ‘magic’–they know what it looks like, smells like feels like.”

Those fifth-year guys, forward Eric Paschall and guard Phil Booth, indeed spurred the (10-4) Wildcats, who seemed out of sorts most of the night coming off a 10-day layoff. 

“These two just keep us together,” agreed Wright, as Paschall (24 points) and Booth (15, 12 in the second half) made one big play after another down the stretch. “They have seen everything and they’re our rocks out there. Their presence just gives our guys confidence.” 

“You can tell when it gets tight other guys are looking for them. We know defensively they’re going to make plays for us. We try to use them every way we can.”

It’s been a winning formula most of the season, though the Wildcats have run into glitches against Michigan and Kansas, currently Nos. 2 and 5 in the rankings, along with (12-2) Furman and (10-4) city rival Penn. But now it’s finally time to take on the Big East, which Wright says is totally up for grabs.

Can Villanova win it again? “I have no idea,” replied Wright, whose teams have gone 77-11 in conference play since 2013, winning four regular-season titles and three Big East tournaments.  “A lot of teams could be anywhere from 1-to-5 and that same team could be 5-to-10  and we’re one of them. We could finish anywhere in this league.”

Their first victim certainly doesn’t count Villanova out. 

“They’ve been tremendous not only in the Big East but in America for a long period of time,”  said Leitao, whose 8-5 club was done in by an 18-6 turnover disparity despite shooting at a 52.8 percent clip and outrebounding the ‘Cats 36-24. “But when you lose the amount of people they lost who meant so much to the program there’s got to be a natural drop-off.”

Next up for the Wildcats is a trip to Providence, who took them to overtime in the Big East Tournament championship game last year, followed by St. John’s who upset Nova at home. Regardless of the opponent, though, the same mindset still applies.

“I just feel every team in the Big East is very good,” said Paschall, who knocked down three second-half three-pointers to keep Nova within striking distance before Booth took over.  “I watch all those Big East games and every game is a battle, every team is good in this conference.”

So is Villanova, though no one’s quite sure yet just how good.  “We have a resilient group,” said Booth, as freshman Saddiq Bey came off the bench to chip in 15 points.

“We’ve been down a lot this year, but we find ways to come back. We keep staying with what we do.”

It’s worked pretty well so far. But will it continue to work or will it finally be the year Villanova comes back to the rest of the Big East pack?

The next few months will be fun finding out.

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