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Today’s U Top 25 Countdown: No. 9 Villanova Wildcats

Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

There is no arguing the fact that under head coach Jay Wright, Villanova has become an elite program. With a streak of making three-straight NCAA tournaments and a combined 62 wins in the last two years, the Wildcats have clearly established themselves as the alpha dog of the new basketball-centric Big East.

However, Villanova does have to battle a perception issue.

You see, the Wildcats, as good and dominant as they have been in the last couple of years, can’t seem to get over the hump and go on an extended run in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have not made it past the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament since 2009. As such, many people inappropriately label them as a just a regular-season wonder.

Can this be the year, though, that it all comes together? Can this be the year in which the Wildcats parlay their regular season success into post-season glory and silence their critics?

Well, I for one wouldn’t bet against it. With a fantastic backcourt in last season’s co-Big East Player of the Year in Ryan Arcidiacono, along with stud freshman Jalen Brunson and the emerging Josh Hart; this is a team that is loaded at guard. Plus, with one of the steadiest post players in the country in Daniel Ochefu, Wright clearly has the makeup of a special squad.

Key Departures: Darrun Hilliard II, JayVaughn Pinkston and Dylan Ennis (transfer)

Wright simply can’t just brush off what was lost from last season’s squad.

After all, Hilliard (14.3 points per game) was the leading scorer for the Wildcats. He was a key cog in Wright’s offense, as he was able to drill three pointers with regularity. Hilliard, who was named first-team all-Big East last season, was a guard who the Wildcats could lean on in the clutch. His veteran leadership will be missed.

Although he did not get the accolades like his teammates Hilliard and Arcidiacono, Pinkston (9.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game), was a load to handle in the frontcourt. He was in many ways a glue guy for Wright, as he always laid his body on the line. That toughness in the frontcourt will be hard to replicate.

Ennis also earned a lot of run last season and averaged 9.9 points and 3.7 assists per game. With perhaps knowing Brunson was heading his way to Philadelphia, Ennis could have seen the writing on the wall that his playing time could possibly be reduced. Thus, this possibly explains why he decided to spend his graduate year at Oregon.

Key Additions: Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney

While DiVincenzo and Delaney will be nice players in due time, everybody at Villanova is super pumped up about the arrival of Brunson.

The 6’2”, 199-pound McDonald’s All-American is another in a long line of exceptionally talented guards that will have played for Wright. Brunson works with an extra gear and possesses above-average athleticism. He can attack the rim with abandon while knocking down jumpers with ease.

Expect him to see time in the same backcourt with Arcidiacono, as Wright explained at Big East media day.

“We’re definitely going to play them together,” Wright said. “We’ve done that with a lot of our guards. Our greatest tool in recruiting Jalen was Ryan. Those two guys developed a great relationship. I look forward to those guys playing together.”

Brunson should be a joy to watch, plain and simple.

Schedule Analysis

Villanova kicks off its season with a cupcake, as they will take on Fairleigh Dickinson at home on November 13. After that, they will host Nebraska in the Gavitt Tipoff Games (an event pairing up Big East and Big 10 teams).

From there the schedule just keeps on getting tougher and tougher.

Then it is on to the preseason NIT, where the Wildcats will take on East Tennessee State (November 20) and Akron (November 22) as warm-up games. Following those games, Villanova will head to Brooklyn (which will hold the NIT this year) to face Stanford on November 26. And depending on if they win or lose, they will face either Georgia Tech or Arkansas the next day.

Once we get to December, the Wildcats will get prepared with some extremely tough tests and of course sprinkle in some Philadelphia Big 5 contests. The month starts off with a game at St. Joseph’s on December 2 in one of those games.

In a span of two weeks, the Wildcats will get supremely tested in what will likely be games against two top-10 teams in Oklahoma (to be played in Hawaii to mark the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7) and then at Virginia (December 19). A home game against LaSalle (December 13) will be sandwiched in between. If the Wildcats can get two out of those three there, they will come out better for the wear.

Two more home games against Delaware (November 22) and Penn (November 28) conclude December’s non-conference slate before the Big East slate begins on December 31 with the Wildcats hosting Xavier. It should be noted Villanova will play at Temple (again another Philadelphia Big 5 opponent) on February 17.

With a round-robin schedule in the Big East, the Wildcats know what they should get. Everybody will be out to dethrone the two-time defending champs. Villanova will certainly have to be up for everybody’s best shot.

Considering Georgetown (Jan 16 away, March 5 home finale), Butler (Jan 10 away, Feb 20 at home) and Xavier (the Big East opener at home on December 31 and away on Feb 24) are the Wildcats’ biggest challengers, those dates will likely be circled.

Preview and Prediction

The past is not always a predictor of the future and sooner or later, Wright will get his Wildcats to the promised land.

Why not this season? They have great point guard play in Arcidiacono and Brunson. They have an emerging scorer in Hart who is ready to break out big time. And again, they have one of the best, seasoned big men in the country in Ochefu.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

With two experienced seniors in Arcidiacono and Ochefu combined with some legit youth (note I have not even mentioned Kris Jenkins, Phil Booth and redshirt Mikal Bridges as contributors), Villanova has the necessary pieces to get to Houston (site of this year’s Final Four).

And as far as last season’s disappointing ending goes, where the Wildcats lost to North Carolina State in the Round of 32, well, Arcidiacono and the team have gotten past that.

“Hopefully we can repeat as (Big East) champions (both) regular season and tournament,” said Arcidiacono at Big East media day. “We’re going to judge ourselves on if we get better each day. We kind of forgot about it (the loss to North Carolina State) after a few weeks. Once we came back for summer school, it’s like a whole new season. We’re not going to judge ourselves on just one game.”

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