Being No. 1 throughout the land might be new for Villanova, which solidified its hold on the top spot Saturday by slogging past pesky St. John’s 73-63 while Nos. 2,3 4 and 5 were all losing last week. But when the Wildcats trek into North Philadelphia Wednesday to play Temple it won’t be the first time Owls’ have been in this position.
On January 2, 2010, No. 1 Kansas came to the Liacouras Center to take on Fran Dunphy’s then No. 19 ranked Owls.
“It didn’t go well,” said longtime Sports Information Director, Larry Dougherty, recalling the Jayhawks’ convincing 84-52 win.
Still, the anticipation on campus has been building all week, though Dunphy made certain not to mention the “V” word to his players until Sunday’s 77-65 win over 5-21 South Florida was completed. That made it five straight for 16-8 Owls, who hold a half game lead over SMU in the American Athletic Conference at 10-3.
Meanwhile everyone else has been talking about the Wildcats.
“On campus everyone’s talking ‘Beat Villanova! Beat Villanova!’” said sixth man Daniel Dingle, who drained three 3-pointers in less than two minutes as Temple closed with a 21-4 tear to rally past Connecticut 63-58, Thursday. “After that game we’ll focus on Villanova.”
“It’s gonna be exciting,” added Quenton DeCosey, who scored Temple’s last nine points in that one — including a had-to-see-it-to-believe-it three-point play on a corkscrew layup — that put the Owls ahead to stay. “Villanova. A Big Five game. We’re gonna have to play our ‘A’ game to beat them.”
Because the 22-3 Wildcats are good enough and deep enough to survive on nights when they’re playing at more a “C” level. Against Chris Mullin’s 7-19 Red Storm, which has dropped a school record 16 straight, Nova shot miserably from beyond the arc ( 0-for-11 in first half, 4-for-19 for the game) and turned it over 15 times.
But thanks to big man Daniel Ochefu’s career high 25 points they survived their second test since hitting the top spot. Wright knows, though, they’re asking for trouble if they keep playing like this.
“Taking care of the basketball been a problem for us,” said Wright, whose club overcame subpar performances from leading scorer Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins to grind past St. John’s. “We’ve been sloppy with the ball. We’ll address that. We know we have to keep getting better.”
Especially facing a Temple team brimming with confidence knowing this could make their season.
“It’s a spectacular opportunity,” said Dunphy, whose club has made a habit of pulling out games with late rallies like it did against UConn. “They’re No. 1 in the country, a city school which has had a terrific program over the years. The challenge will be great. Then again the opportunity will be great. They’re so solid throughout. A terrific defensive team which can go on one of those rolls and hit shot after shot.
“I think it’s great for the city they are where they are.”
A win would give Villanova its third straight outright Big 5 title and 23rd overall, stretching its Big 5 run to 14 in a row — the last 11 by at least 14 points. But should the Cats falter it would create a three-way tie for City honors with the Owls and 21-4 Saint Joseph’s at 3-1.
Regardless, the Wildcats, who hold a two-game lead in the Big East at 12-1 over 22-3 Xavier with a showdown in Cincinnati a week from Wednesday, have long since punched their ticket to the NCAA’s Big Dance. Barring some major lapse they’re likely to be No. 1 seed in the East, which could mean playing the Sweet 16 in their home away from home, the Wells Fargo Center — assuming they can finally get that far.
Temple, though, doesn’t have the luxury of many more losses. Following a day where Temple led nearly wire-to-wire while also honoring its 1991 team — led by Mark Macon — which advanced to the Elite Eight the Owls now get ready for arguably their most important Big 5 game since Macon’s freshman year. That’s when John Chaney’s No. 1 Owls got all it could handle from Rollie Massimino’s No. 20 Wildcats, before pulling out a 98-86 win.
Wednesday they’ll try to put a damper on the special season this 2016 Nova team is putting together.
"We're on a roll right now,” said DeCosey, Temple’s only double figure scorer for the season, averaging 16.6. “We have to keep it going."
Get ready, then, for an old fashioned Big 5 classic with just one thing missing: It won’t be played at the Palestra.