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Villanova Ready to Defend Big East Crown (Again)

Villanova once again finds itself in familiar territory. Ever since the Big East realigned to a basketball-centric conference three years ago, the Wildcats have been to which all other programs aspire to be.

At Big East media day on Wednesday, that sentiment was the prevailing theme of the day.

The Wildcats are the reigning back-to-back Big East champs and once again are favored to win the conference crown. On Wednesday, fellow Big East coaches unanimously voted Villanova as the preseason favorites. The Wildcats received nine first-place votes (coaches were not permitted to vote for their own team).

Head coach Jay Wright’s squad is coming off a terrific, yet bittersweet season. The Wildcats dominated from the get go and bullied their way to a 16-2 record in conference (33-3 overall). It would proceed to gain a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, the party would be short lived, as the Wildcats were unceremoniously bounced in the Round of 32 by the upstart North Carolina State Wolfpack. So, what once looked like a promising season ended quickly with unfulfilled results.

That is not something that Wright and the Wildcats like to dwell on, though. What’s done is done. These Wildcats now have a clean slate to work with and are about as talented as any team in the country.

Senior leader Ryan Arcidiacono is back after being named the co-Big East Player of the Year last season, and on Wednesday the 6’3” point guard was named to the preseason all-Big East first team. Arcidiacono is not dwelling on past tournament failures and is optimistic his team will be one of the best teams in the country.

“Hopefully we can repeat as (Big East) champions (both) regular season and tournament,” said Arcidiacono. “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.”

Arcidiacono is also part of a special backcourt. Joining Arcidiacono in the backcourt is the Big East pre-season Rookie of the Year in McDonald’s All-American Jalen Brunson.

Wright loves what he has in both Arcidiacono and Brunson and does indeed plan to play both point guards in the same backcourt.

“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 great relationship. I look forward to those guys playing together.”

Wright is known for possessing some of the finer backcourts in years past,  and the 2015-16 version could be one of the country’s best. He loves the fact that Villanova is regarded as “Guard U”, but Wright wants Villanova to be known for more than being just about guards.

“We just recruit guys that fit our culture off the court and (who) are good basketball players,” said Wright. “We don’t care what position they are. We’ve been fortunate; that ‘Guard U’ reputation has helped us a lot and cursed us a little bit because it’s hard to get big guys like Daniel Ochefu to say they want to come to ‘Guard U’. Even though I think, if you’re a big guy, it should be where you want to go because you’re going to be playing with great guards and (distributors). So I try to use that in recruiting.”

Another talented guard to look out for is junior wing Josh Hart. Hart is in line for a break-out season after averaging 10.1 points (second on the team), 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting .515 percent from the field and a scorching .464 percent from three-point range last season, while being named the conference’s 6th Man of the Year.

Arcidiacono is eager to see what Hart can do this year with added responsibility, since stars of last year’s backcourt Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis have now departed the program leaving Hart to make a bigger impact. He thinks Hart is in line for a great season.

“Fore sure,” Arcidiacono said about Hart having a break-out season. “He’s been consistent in how he’s played the last couple of years. I’m expecting even more things from him both offensively and defensively.”

Like Wright intimated, Villanova is not all about it’s backcourt. It also possesses one of the steadiest centers in the country in the aforementioned Ochefu. The 6’11” senior center (who averaged 9.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, while shooting .644 percent from the field last season) has steadily improved every season and is looking to go out with a bang in his last year at the Philadelphia university.

“Really, the biggest thing is being the best team we can be at the end of the year,” said Ochefu. “Every night is going to be a battle whether you play the top team or the bottom team.”

While postseason success has eluded them lately, Villanova is still the team holding up the bulls eye target. And it doesn’t appear that will change anytime soon.

“Villanova is the gold standard until someone knocks them off,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said.

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