The #4 Wildcats (21-2 overall, 10-1 Big East, RPI #5) hope to make it eight in a row, over the reeling Providence Friars, on Saturday at the Wachovia Center.
Providence has been one of those Big East opponents which has always given Villanova particular trouble. However, Villanova has dominated the series in recent years. The Friars' last victory in the series came on February 11, 2004. In what is arguably Villanova's worst performance in Jay Wright's nine-year tenure, the Friars - at the Pavilion, no less - annihilated the Wildcats, 100-74. It represented the absolute nadir of Villanova fortunes, in the Wright era. Not surprisingly, that season would culminate in Wright's third NIT, in his three years at the helm.
But in 2005, everything changed, and Villanova returned to the NCAA tournament, for the first time in six years. Doing better against Providence was part of the puzzle. Even in 2004, the Wildcats won a rematch against the NCAA-bound Friars, in the Big East tournament. And Villanova hasn't lost to them since - the Wildcats have reeled off seven straight in the series. And what's most remarkable about it, has been the Wildcats' success @ Providence - four consecutive victories.
However, Saturday's game will be at the Wachovia Center - where Providence has never ventured. At no point in the long Villanova / Providence rivalry, has the game been played in the South Philadelphia complex. All previous Villanova home games have been at Jake Nevin Field House, the Pavilion, or at the storied Palestra, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Viewpoint on the Providence Friars (4-8 Big East, 12-12 overall, #104 RPI)
Providence is really struggling, this season. The nonconference schedule was fine - the Friars started the season 8-4. And the Friars had a decent start in Big East play, winning three of its first five (although the opponents were St. John's, DePaul, and Rutgers, i.e., the three worst teams; they lost to Notre Dame and Louisville.) Then, the roof caved in.
Marquette handed the Friars a 30-point defeat on January 17, and South Florida won a 109-105 overtime battle, six days later. A 15-point home victory over fellow New England rival Connecticut was the highlight of the season, and PC still had a decent record at that point, on January 27: 4-4 Big East, 12-8 overall. Granted, the first half of PC's Big East schedule was very favorable, and the sledding would become a lot rougher, but you never know.
Providence has now gone 16 days without a win, having lost their last four contests: @ Cincinnati, @ Syracuse, Marquette (by just three this time), and a respectable loss to #7 Georgetown on Tuesday.
It's safe to say that at this point, that at 4-8 in conference play, and an RPI of #104, for Providence to have any prayer at an at-large bid, the Friars need to defeat at least two, and possibly all, of its next three ranked opponents: Villanova, West Virginia, and Syracuse.
Providence has been off the national radar for a while, as that 2004 team - the one that so memorably handed Wright his most egregious defeat, before or since - was the last Friar squad to go to the NCAA tournament, under Tim Welsh. Welsh was in Providence for a decade, taking over the reins in 1998-99. During his first six seasons, Welsh guided the Friars to two NCAA tournaments and two NITs, from 1999-2004.
However, Providence's fortunes took a downturn, after 2004. From 2005-08, Welsh had only one winning record, an NIT season in 2007. In postseason play, in both tournaments, Welsh's teams went to two NCAAs and four NITs, yet finished with just one victory in six attempts (a victory in the NIT first round in 2003). After the 2008 team finished 6-12 Big East, 15-16 overall, and missed postseason play completely, Welsh was fired, and replaced by the current coach, Keno Davis.
Last year, Davis had a highly respectable season, getting the Friars back to the NIT (although they did lose in the first round). But more importantly, the Friars finished with a winning record in Big East play, at 10-8; their overall record was 19-14. To finish over .500, in the nation's toughest conference, shows the vitality of the Providence program.
Last Year's Game - Dunkin' Donuts Center - Providence, RI - #17 Villanova 94, Providence 91
Villanova's fourth consecutive victory at the terrifying Dunk, did not come easily. The 17th-ranked Wildcats appeared to be cruising, taking a 49-34 lead at intermission. In fact, Villanova even extended the lead, with its largest lead coming at the 15:38 mark in the second half - a seemingly insurmountable 20-point advantages.
But Villanova was soon treated to the all-too-familiar sight, of the intimidating home-court advantage the Dunk provides the Friars. During the final 15-plus minutes, Providence launched a furious counterattack, and the Wildcats were lucky to escape with a 94-91 victory. What saved the Wildcats was the foul line - 25-33, a 75.8% conversion rate; in contrast, the Friars hit only 66.7% (20-30), and that made the difference.
Five Wildcats reached double figures. Scottie Reynolds led the Wildcats with 31 points and half a dozen rebounds, but he committed five turnovers, shot only 7-18 from the floor; he made up for it with 4-11 from beyond the arc and 13-15 from the line. Dwayne Anderson had one of the finest games of his career, a double-double, with 19 points and 10 rebounds.
The three big guns for Providence were Sharaud Curry, with 25 points; Weyinmi Efejuku, with 23 points, and Jeff Xavier, with 21 points.
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