Villanova makes it look easy at MSG

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Villanova makes it look easy at MSG


NEW YORK -- Phil Booth insisted he was so focused on defense and finding open teammates that he never glanced at the scoreboard.

"I didn't even notice the score was 19-0," he said.

Villanova was rolling, and if a game can be over in the opening 5 minutes, this was the one.

The second-ranked Villanova scored the first 19 points and cruised toward its fourth straight trip in the Big East Tournament championship game in an 87-68 win over Butler on Friday night.

About 30 minutes after top-seeded Xavier was upset by Providence in overtime, the Wildcats (29-4) hit the court and showed how a favorite should play in a tournament semifinal.

Mikal Bridges hit a 3-pointer five seconds into the game and the Wildcats used near-perfect execution on a 16-0 run before Butler coach LaVall Jordan finally called a timeout at the 15:37 mark. He could have waved a white flag to signal for the TO.

Omari Spellman buried a 3 to make it 19-0 and the Wildcats proved why the Big East tournament title always goes through the Main Line and straight to Madison Square Garden. Butler finally scored and heard some mock cheers for the jumper.

"Spot a team like that 16, 19 points, it's going to be really, really tough to dig out," Jordan said.

The Bulldogs failed to find an offensive excavator.

Hey, at least the Bulldogs (20-13) were only down 17 after their first bucket.

Butler called a 30-second timeout with 11:35 left in the second half and trailed by 25 points. Yes, this was a tournament semifinal game.

The Wildcats hit 10 of their first 12 shots that made for an anticlimactic final 35 minutes at the Garden. Providence had rallied from a 17-point second-half deficit and stunned top-seeded and No. 3 Xavier 75-72 in the first conference semifinal that had MSG rocking.

This seemed like a tune-up for a coronation.

Bridges had 18, Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson scored 17 points and Spellman had 12 points and 12 rebounds.

Under coach Jay Wright, Villanova won the tournament in 2015 and 2017 and lost to Seton Hall in 2016. The four straight Big East title games are one shy of Syracuse's record five straight from 1986-1990.

"I think we feel like we're a new team rather than a team that's stale at the end of the year," Wright said.

The Wildcats did split two games against Providence but the Friars are coming off overtime games on consecutive nights and will be a heavy underdog.

Villanova vs. Xavier -- the No. 2 and 3 teams in the AP Top 25 -- had been an anticipated final. The Wildcats lost the outright regular-season title even though it beat the Musketeers twice.

The sixth-seeded Bulldogs stunned third-seeded Seton Hall 75-74 for its first career Big East Tournament victory and a win over the Wildcats on Dec. 30 made it seem like this should have been competitive.

Instead, Kelan Martin, who averaged 21.1 points, scored just four for the Bulldogs in the first half. He finished with 12.

"They had a great game plan for me. Sometimes, you just can't beat it," Martin said.

The Wildcats improved to 14-0 when holding opponents under 70 points.

"That was one of our best defensive performances," Wright said.

The Wildcats hit six 3s, including Booth's at the buzzer, to send them into the break ahead 44-25. Told Villanova could put probably four 3-point shooters on the court, Jordan cracked, "seemed like six."

Big picture
Butler: The Bulldogs are still in good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid and should be in the mix for No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Butler has lost three of four games.

"We'll be fine," Martin said. "We've got something to play for."

Villanova: The Wildcats have won six of seven games and likely clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have won 10 of 11 Big East Tournament games.

Up next
Butler: Butler waits to find out its NCAA Tournament fate

Villanova: The Wildcats beat the Friars 89-69 on Jan. 23 and lost at Providence 76-71 on Feb. 14.

Big East Tournament preview: Will Villanova get a 3rd shot at Butler?

Big East Tournament preview: Will Villanova get a 3rd shot at Butler?

Villanova arrives in Manhattan this week trying to take care of its one bit of unfinished business from last year. In between winning the Big East regular season title and the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats lost the 2016 Big East Tournament championship game to Seton Hall. 

The loss prevented Villanova from winning back-to-back Big East Tournament titles but ultimately was reduced to footnote status once Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beater bested North Carolina in the national championship game three weeks later.
But make no mistake -- the Seton Hall loss stung the Wildcats and particularly head coach Jay Wright. Sure, if you had to pick one you'd rather win a national championship than a conference tournament championship. But Wright might be the only coach in the country who would have to think about it for a minute. 

Wright idolized the legendary coaches and players who populated the Big East in the league's formative years and the seven seasons he spent coaching at Hofstra only deepened his appreciation for New York City basketball. The Big East, New York City and Madison Square Garden are as good as it gets for Wright.
Wright's only Big East Tournament title came in 2015, and at the time he said beating Xavier in the conference championship game that year was as good as winning a national championship. To be fair, he recanted that statement after actually winning the national championship last year. But you get the point -- the Big East Tournament holds a very special place in Wright's heart.   
Villanova brings plenty of motivation and momentum into the 2017 Big East Tournament. The Wildcats finished the regular season ranked second in the country with a 28-3 record that included a 15-3 mark in Big East play. They won their fourth straight conference regular season title by three games over second place Butler. In addition to atoning for last year's Big East Tournament title game loss, Villanova also sets out to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament. Win three games this week and the Wildcats will find themselves on the East Region's top line come Selection Sunday.
While Villanova is the favorite to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, there are a number of obstacles in their path to a conference tournament championship. Below is a breakdown of the teams and players standing in the Wildcats' way.
Biggest threat
This is an easy call. Second-seeded Butler swept the season series from Villanova, winning 66-58 at home in early January before pulling off a shocking 74-66 upset in February that snapped the Wildcats' 48-game winning streak at the Pavilion. If you hand Villanova two of its three losses, you qualify as their biggest threat in the conference tournament.
Butler is a mirror image of Villanova and twice beat the Wildcats at their own game. Josh Hart said it best -- Villanova got out Villanova'd. What he means is the Bulldogs beat the Wildcats by playing harder, playing smarter and playing together. Those are hallmarks of the Villanova program under Wright and have translated to tremendous success in the last handful of years. 

But in two regular season meetings, Butler exceeded the Wildcats in the effort and execution departments. The Bulldogs compete for the full 40 minutes and relish grinding out possessions. They are a smart, well-coached, veteran team that doesn't typically beat themselves.
A Villanova/Butler championship game on Saturday night would be the best case scenario for the Big East. The league would like nothing more than to showcase its two best teams battling it out on national television for the conference tournament title. The challenge for Butler will be actually getting to Saturday night. The Bulldogs lost six Big East games during the regular season, including a pair of losses to Creighton, who could potentially be Butler's opponent in the conference semifinals. 
This designation goes to Providence, who finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak. The Friars face Creighton in the quarterfinals on Thursday night and likely would see Butler in Friday's semifinals. Providence split with both of those teams during the regular season and won't be lacking for confidence in either matchup. 

The Friars are led by one of the best coaches in the Big East in Ed Cooley and the most improved player in the conference in Kyron Cartwright, who averages 11.3 points and 6.8 assists while shooting a shade under 39 percent from three-point territory.
Cartwright is one of four Providence players averaging double-figure points for the season. The Friars are a battle-tested group that is quite capable of winning three games this week.
Player to watch
I'm going with two players here -- Seton Hall's Angel Delgado and Creighton’s Marcus Foster. Delgado and Foster were unanimous First Team All-Big East selections, and each has the potential to single-handedly lift his team to great heights in the Big East Tournament.
Delgado will be the best big man in Manhattan, averaging 15.7 points and a conference best 13.1 rebounds on the season. He had a staggering 25 double-doubles in the regular season and is a flat out menace on the offensive glass. Foster meanwhile is an explosive scorer who averages 18.5 points, second in the conference only to Hart's 18.7. Foster can score from anywhere in the floor and is nearly unstoppable when he heats up from the perimeter.
Best-case scenario
As impressive as Delgado and Foster have been, the two best players in the Big East wear Villanova uniforms. Hart and Jalen Brunson have been terrific from the outset of the season and form arguably the best 1-2 punch in the country. They are elite playmakers on the offensive end who also happen to be relentless defenders. 

Simply put, the best case scenario for Villanova is to ride their two best players to a Big East Tournament title. The Wildcats will be awfully tough to beat with Hart and Brunson firing on all cylinders and Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo playing strong supporting roles.
The return of Darryl Reynolds is also noteworthy. Reynolds played 27 minutes in Villanova's regular season finale against Georgetown and showed no ill-effects from the rib injury that sidelined him for the previous five games. Not only does Reynolds provide much needed support in the rebounding and interior defense departments, but he also allows Wright to play with a solid seven-man rotation that could extend to an eight-man rotation with freshman forward Dylan Painter playing spot minutes.
Villanova has the star power and the newfound depth to roll through the Big East Tournament, ideally exacting revenge against Butler in the championship game.
Worst-case scenario
Villanova plays the winner of Wednesday night's game between St. John's and Georgetown in the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon. The worst case scenario would be facing St. John's on its home court with the added momentum of a win over Georgetown the previous night. 

The Wildcats handled the Red Storm twice in the regular season and would be a heavy favorite in a third meeting. But an upset wouldn't be inconceivable -- Hart gets in early foul trouble, Jenkins and Bridges go cold from the perimeter and St. John's rides the home crowd to a massive upset. In this unlikely but entirely possible scenario, Villanova would squander the No. 1 seed in the East Region and have a full week to contemplate the shaky footing they would stand on entering the NCAA Tournament.    

No. 2 Villanova's run at the Pavilion ends at 48 with loss to No. 22 Butler

No. 2 Villanova's run at the Pavilion ends at 48 with loss to No. 22 Butler


VILLANOVA, Pa. — It started with 9:37 left in the game with a foul shot by Kelan Martin, and it ended with 4:18 left with a three-pointer by Martin.

In between, nothing went right for Villanova.

It was a 5½-minute nightmare.

No. 22 Butler ran off 18 straight points against No. 2 Villanova on Wednesday, turning a seven-point deficit into an 11-point lead, and then hung on for a 74-66 win over the Wildcats, ‘Nova’s first loss on campus in more than four years (see Instant Replay).

Villanova has lost three games this year, two of them to Butler.

“You have to give them credit,” Villanova sophomore Jalen Brunson said. “They were just hitting every shot. As a team, we just didn’t really lock in defensively. All credit to them for what they were able to do offensively.”

Villanova led 49-42 with just over 9½ minutes left, but during that 5½-minute stretch, Butler made 7 of 11 shots — including 4 of 7 threes — to take a 60-52 lead.

Villanova went 6½ minutes without scoring. The Wildcats missed six straight shots and committed two turnovers during that 18-0 run.

“Nothing really changed,” Butler junior forward Martin said. “We just stuck together.

“We knew we might get punched in the mouth today, it happens on the road, especially with a good team. We responded well and stuck with it and went on a run and just kept grinding it out, possession by possession.”

The loss was the first ever on campus for Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and the other Villanova seniors. The Wildcats had won 48 straight games at the Pavilion since a 2013 loss to Providence. That was Ryan Arcidiacono's freshman year.

Villanova dropped to 26-3 overall and 13-3 in the Big East, and Butler — which had never won at Villanova — improved to 22-6 and 11-5.

One more Villanova win or Butler loss will still give Villanova the outright Big East Conference title and No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament in New York. 

Creighton lost Wednesday night to Providence, leaving Butler and Villanova the only schools that can win the Big East regular-season title. 

“We’ve got to have better attention to detail, and it starts with me,” Hart said. “On the defensive end, we got exposed and it started with me and that’s something that we’ve got to have better attention to detail from the seniors and [have it] trickle down.”

Villanova got the lead down to six — with the ball — with three minutes left and got as close as five during a wild last couple minutes, but Butler made its last eight foul shots to secure the win.

“It seemed like the last couple minutes took an hour,” Martin said.

Brunson shot 9 for 13 for 24 points, but the rest of the Wildcats were a combined 16 for 44.

Hart scored 18, but Jenkins shot 1 for 8 and 1 for 5 from three, Mikal Bridges had just three points and Donte DiVincenzo just six.

“They just played better than us in every phase,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We just have to give them credit. Sometimes you come into a game, and the other team plays better. You try everything and our guys competed to the end, I’m proud of them for that, but we just ran into a team that played better than us tonight in every phase.”

Butler led 8-0 early, but Villanova outscored the Bulldogs 44-28 over the next 22½ minutes and took its biggest lead at 44-36 seven minutes into the second half.

But Butler — down eight against the No. 2 team in the country in a gym where the Wildcats hadn’t lost in four years — kept battling.

“I thought our guys played pretty loose and free and were able to make some open looks against their pressure,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “They’re 15th in the country in defensive efficiency for a reason, but our guys just got into a rhythm and made some open shots.”

Martin had 22 points and eight rebounds for Butler on 7 for 11 shooting. Kamar Baldwin added 15 points before fouling out, and Avery Woodson scored 13.

Butler shot 51 percent and 40 percent from three. Villanova shot just 44 percent and 41 percent in the second half and made just 6 of 24 from the arc — 25 percent.

“Their physicality, we just didn’t handle it well,” Wright said. “We turned it over [and] couldn’t get any assists (eight on 25 baskets).

“They just do a great job of playing every possession. They get down, they don’t do anything different. They just keep grinding, grinding, and try to do the same thing. When they got down, they didn’t crack at all. They just kept executing.

“We didn’t crack either, but we just couldn’t get buckets. We didn’t execute well and a lot of it was their defense. They were just a better team than us tonight. We made more mistakes than they did.”