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.
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.
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.
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.