Saturday, March 11, 2017

Villanova: 2016-17 Big East Men's Basketball Champions



NEW YORK -- The final buzzer sounded on Villanova's decisive win over Creighton in the Big East title game, and it was time for the Wildcats to celebrate.

Only they didn't. A few hugs, a couple of high-fives. That was it.

If there had been no Big East champion signs to hold up or hats to wear, you might have thought Villanova had just beaten DePaul in an early-January conference game.

"We have more work to do. A lot better we can get," senior forward Darryl Reynolds said. "You come down a bit quicker because you realize you have so much more work to do than celebrating completely. We're excited, but we understand we have more work to do."

If there was any remaining doubt, Villanova erased it on Saturday. The Wildcats are dialed in for a repeat run to the national championship.

They bounced back from Friday's close semifinal win over Seton Hall with an impressive 74-60 effort against a hot Creighton team. Josh Hart had 29 points and six rebounds as he continues his late push toward national player of the year honors; Jalen Brunson finished with 17 points and five assists; and Kris Jenkins buried two early 3-pointers en route to 14 points.

Villanova's Josh Hart had 29 points and six rebounds against Creighton in the Big East title game, but the Wildcats didn't spend much time celebrating. David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

With the win, Villanova enters the NCAA tournament with the fewest losses (three) of any reigning national champion since Duke in 2001-02.

But while all the talk outside the program is about the Wildcats having a chance to be the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, the players insist it's not even on their mind.

"We don't talk about it," Reynolds said. "We were the champions last year. This year, if we won again, that's two different trophies. Nobody can take what we did last year from us. You can move forward and free your mind and realize that last year was last year. We gotta take care of business this year."

Seriously? Never discussed?

"You just said it," Jenkins said. "That's the only time it's been mentioned."

Although Villanova's 31-3 record looks near flawless, the Wildcats are still fine-tuning for the three weeks ahead. Coach Jay Wright experimented with a variety of different lineups and defenses during the week in New York, utilizing jumbo lineups with four frontcourt players on the court at the same time and switching to zone defenses more often to throw a wrinkle at opponents.

Hart, Brunson and Jenkins are the mainstays, but Wright wants to make sure he has a few more tricks up his sleeve in the NCAA tournament. Freshman big man Dylan Painter was the newest change, as he played a season-high 22 minutes against St. John's on Thursday with Mikal Bridges sidelined due to a stomach virus.

Combined with Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo off the bench, Painter gives Wright his deepest rotation of the season -- at the right time.

"Those guys have really developed into big-time players," Wright said. "So it gives us a good eight-man rotation now, which is very important, especially this time of year."

This week in New York refocused Villanova. The Wildcats hadn't really been tested in a couple of months. There was the home loss to Butler a few weeks ago, but aside from that, they hadn't had a win by fewer than 11 points since Feb. 1 against Providence. And then on Friday, Seton Hall jumped on them early and had the lead late, but Hart and Brunson made big plays to get the win for Villanova.

If Villanova is to go on and reach the Final Four, it will look back at that victory as a turning point.

"It was a wake-up call on our attitudes and our habits," DiVincenzo said. "We know if we have one of those slip-ups in the NCAA tournament, a great team is going to get us."

So where might Villanova slip up in the next couple of weeks? The big three of Hart, Brunson and Jenkins are in sync, depth has been addressed, focus and complacency are no longer issues.

Villanova will enter Sunday as the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a favorite to win the national championship. It will have a favorable geographic path, heading to Buffalo and New York, before the Final Four.

There's the elephant in the room, though. Pressure.


Villanova, after years of being overlooked regardless of regular-season performance, is the hunted. If there's a team prepared to handle it, though, it's the Wildcats. They have the experience of winning a title, and with four straight regular-season championships, being in everyone else's crosshairs isn't a new feeling.

"We got a target on our back throughout the whole year," sophomore forward Bridges said. "No. 1 team in the country, teams bringing their best, reigning national champs the whole year. No pressure, we just know we gotta bring it."

Make no mistake, Villanova is locked in for the next three weeks.

"I feel like we're getting better at the right time," Jenkins said.

And that's a scary thought for the rest of the country.
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