Coming off a spectacular 29-5 season and losing just one regular, Jay Wright knew this could be a big year at Villanova. But he didn’t expect this.
"At the beginning of the year I said a number of times I thought this could be a better team than last year just because we had everyone returning," said Wright after the No. 4 ranked Wildcats made it 12 in a row to finish off the greatest regular season in school history, 29-2, with a resounding 105-68 blowout of St. John’s Saturday. "I think we can beat anybody in the country right now and we can get beat by a lot of teams in the country. We have a really good team, but not so good that if we don't play our best, we can’t get beat."
That’s the mentality he wants them to take to Broadway this week, where they’ll try for Nova’s first Big East Tournament title since Steve Lappas’ 1995 Wildcats. That team — led by Kerry Kittles and Alvin Williams — was in the house Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their crown.
It’s not hard at all to imagine these guys reconvening in a couple of decades for a comparable celebration. But Wright would be the first to say that’s getting way, way ahead of things. Their first conference tournament game comes Thursday against the Seton Hall — Marquette winner.
"Last year’s last year," said JayVaughn Pinkston, who scored 16 points while Daniel Ochefu erupted for 21, as Nova took full advantage of the absence of shot-blocking Chris Obekpa, who sat out with a sprained ankle. "We can’t do anything about that now, except focus on our next game.’’
If that’s anything like Saturday, folks at the Garden will finally get to see a good team play in person. After the Red Storm knocked down its first five shots to take an early 16-5 lead, Villanova systematically took St. John’s apart. What had been a tight 50-46 halftime lead, simply got out of hand after intermission where the Wildcats were a team possessed, going on a 55-22 spree.
They closed out the day with a preposterous 43-10 run and only three turnovers — all in the first half — to hand 21-10 St. John’s its most lopsided loss since 2002 vs. Duke, while becoming the first team in this 111-game series to hit triple figures.
No wonder Steve Lavin wonders if the top Cats throughout the land might not be the ones from Kentucky. "There’s a reason they’re 29-2 and a have a No. 1 seed all but locked up," said Lavin, who could be headed for a rematch with Villanova Friday if the Red Storm beats Providence Thursday. They’re playing at a very high level. They’re playing the best basketball of any team in the country, and we saw that on display."
Wright might not go quite that far. He just wants his team to put on a better showing in New York than it did last year.
"It wasn't losing to Seton Hall that had us concerned going into the (NCAA) tournament,’’ said Wright, who had five players in double figures while shooting 56.1 percent. "It was how we played. You can get beat by anybody, but we didn’t play aggressive defensively. Now we want to have that defensive consistency."
The key might be forgetting everything leading up to this point.
"We know what happened last year, so we’re not going to take anyone lightly," vowed Darrun Hilliard, who snapped out of a recent shooting slump with 14. "We have to kind of forget about the regular season, which is hard to do when you’re already Big East champs. But we’ve been through it already and learned to be humbled by it. Now we have to go to the Garden with that humble mentality."
And then — no matter what happens this week on Broadway — get ready for what they hope will be an NCAA Tournament run that will last all the way through April.