Game Preview: (1) Villanova vs. (8) Seton Hall
The Teams: (1) Villanova (28-3, 16-2 BIg East) 6 Game Winning Streak
(8) Seton Hall (16-16, 6-12 Big East) 1 Game Winning Streak
The Date: Thursday, March 13
The Time: 12:00pm ET
The Location: Madison Square Garden; New York, NY
TV: Fox Sports 1
The Story of their Big East Tourney (Villanova)
For the first time since the 1997 Big East conference tournament, the Villanova Wildcats hold the No.1 seed. The last time this happened, the Cats made it all the way to the conference title game before losing to Boston College. The main difference between the two team is that this year's was in sole possession of first place in the Big East, the first time in 32 years, while that '97 team finished tied with eventual conference tournament champion Boston College for first place in the conference. The last time that the Cats won a Big East Tourney came back in 1995, when they were the No. 2 seed behind UCONN.
Now on to this year's team. It seems that as long as Jay Wright and Co. don't match up against the Creighton BlueJays in this tournament, they should be fine. In the two games against the BlueJays, the Cats are 0-2 this season, their only two conference losses, by an average of 29.5 points. Against the other eight teams in the conference, they've been as consistent as any squad in the entire Big East this season. Nova is 16-0 against the rest of the conference, having won these games by an average of 13.6 points, including eight wins by double digits. It seems that regardless of how close the game seems to get, the Cats have just always been in control against the majority of the conference. If they can avoid Creighton, due to a possible upset, then Nova may not experience much resistance to their second BIG EAST tournament championship of all time.
A key to Nova's success, especially on offense, will be senior James Bell's ability to snap out of the recent scoring funk that he's been in. Bell, who was recently names an All-Big East first team player, has failed to reach his 14.9 ppg. average in the past five games. This comes after a previous 10 game stretch, over a month-long period from mid-January to mid-February, where he hit that surpassed that scoring mark in every single contest. Bell has emerged as the team's best overall player, and as the senior leader he'll need to step up his game in the tourney in order for his Wildcat teammates to follow suit.
The Story of Their Big East Tourney (Seton Hall)
It's really a lost season as this point in time for Seton Hall, so this tournament seems to be focused solely on revenge for previous contests. During the regular season, the Pirates went a combined 1-6 against the four teams that currently sit on their side of the conference bracket.
The Hall is already 1-0 on this revenge tour after beating the Butler Bulldogs last night in a nail-biter, 51-50. The key for the Pirates in this game was their ability to limit the Bulldogs from beyond the 3-point line. Seton Hall held Butler to a putrid 2-18 (11.1%) shooting clip from long range. This included holding the Bulldogs' leading scorer (Kellen Dunham) and their point guard (Alex Barlow,) to a combined 1-14 performance from 3-point range. The negative on the other side of ball for Seton Hall also came from the beyond the arc. The squad shot 5-20 (25%) from long range, which really prevented them from sustaining any attempt to pull away, despite holding the lead over Butler for 46:07 of the 50 total minutes in the game. Seton Hall has been consistently good all season when shooting from the outside (36.3%) and needs to keep up that clip in a battle against Villanova, which matches the second and third best 3-point shooting teams in the Big East during the regular season.
Much like Nova needs James Bell to step up and improve on offense, The Hall really needs senior Fuquan Edwin to make major strides from yesterday's game against Butler. After leading the team in scoring (14.7 ppg), on 45% shooting from the field, Edwin froze up against Butler in the first round, racking up a mere 10 points while only hitting 30% of his shots from the field, which was still 4% worse than his 3-point shooting percentage for the entire regular season. Edwin was recently names a second-team All-Big East performer, so he certainly has the talent to explode and single handedly carry Seton Hall to an upset victory. It's also difficult to judge Edwin purely off his performance against Bulter, as he only scored four points against Butler in the last game of the regular season as well, so it seems as if the Bulldogs figured out something defensively that no one else can seem to figure out. If Edwin doesn't show up and bring out his inner Madison Square Garden Kemba Walker, then the Pirates have little to no chance of pulling off the upset.
The Players to Keep Your Eyes On:
Villanova: Despite Bell being Nova's best offensive threat on a game-to-game basis. It's impossible to argue that junior guard Darrun Hilliard has been anything short of spectacular in the final couple of regular season games. At the end of the season, Hilliard was the Wildcats' best player on offense, as he has led the Cats in scoring over the final five games of the regular season, all wins. This caused him to surpass JayVaughn Pinskton and surge up to the post of the second-leading scorer on the team, at 14.4 ppg. Much of his offensive success can be attributed to his improvement from beyond the 3-point line. Hilliard has transformed into a sharpshooting southpaw during his recent hot stretch, shooting at least 60% from beyond the arc in three of his past 5 games. His importance will become even more of a factor against The Hall if Bell continues to progress along his current offensive slump.
Seton Hall: Much like it is for seemingly every team that faces off against Nova, the battle inside could make or break the outcome. With Seton Hall, it will all be on the back of senior center Gene Teague. Teague has been the emotional rock for the Pirates all season, and his importance cannot be understated. In the five games that Teague has missed this season (four due to a scary back injury), the Pirates are 1-4, with the only win coming in double overtime against the Providence Friars. Teague is the team's fourth leading scorer, but he will be most important for The Hall when it comes to rebounding. Nova is the top rebounding team in the conference, so Teague (7.7 rpg) will need to be able to hold his own inside. It'll be interesting to see if Teague, even with the injury issue that he experienced only two months ago, can handle the bruising play of Pinkston and center Daniel Ochefu inside for the Cats. Teague didn't play in the first game against Nova, so it's still to be determined if he can match up well against the Cats talented big men, and that could be one of the most important factors in this game.
The Last Time They Met:
The teams have played each other twice this season, with the most recent matchup coming on February 7, as Villanova was able to emerge with a 70-53 victory. The big story was on the boards, as the Wildcats won the rebounding battle by nine, including a five rebound advantage on the offensive boards. Bell led the Wildcats in scoring in that one, with 20 points, and Sterling GIbbs paced the Pirates offensively, with 16 points of his own.
The Prediction: The biggest factor in this game will be how well that Gene Teague plays. He wasn't available for The Hall in the first matchup against Nova, so there's no way to tell if his insertion into the game can make any difference in the final result. Regardless, I just cannot pick against Jay Wright's crew, the hottest team in the conference, until the squad loses against a Big East team that doesn't have Creighton stitched across the chest of the jerseys.
Villanova 79 Seton Hall 66