Where: Finneran Pavillion
When: Tuesday, December 21st at 7:00 pm ET
How to Watch: FS1
Line: Villanova -5
“They’ve been the flagship program in the Big East since we joined,” said Xavier head coach Travis Steele about Villanova on Sunday. “We’ve got a tall task in front of us, we know they’re gonna be ready. You know, we gotta be the tougher team for forty minutes.”
Jay Wright’s team has been picked first in all but one season since Steele became the head coach at Xavier. The lone exception was a second-place ranking, just one vote out of first place.
Steele knows just how hard it can be to beat Villanova. He has a 1-4 record against the Wildcats, with the one win coming at the Cintas Center. That’s why he knows that playing at Finneran Pavillion on Tuesday will be no easy task, despite Villanova’s recent struggles. “We know how good they are. It’s gonna be a game of focus, a game of discipline,” Steele remarked.
This has not been the typical Villanova team, however. Despite being picked to win the conference yet again this season, the Wildcats dropped their conference opener at Creighton in stunning style. The 20-point margin was their biggest loss in Big East play since 2015. Villanova dropped to #23 in the AP poll on Monday, their lowest ranking in over two years.
The Wildcats have felt the loss of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl from last year’s team. A season ago, Villanova shot over 53 percent from inside the arc. This year, that’s dipped below 47 percent. The trio of Jermaine Samuels, Brandon Slater, and Eric Dixon has been unable to pick up the slack.
Still, it’s been no easy feat to keep the Wildcats down. Just twice since the reformation of the Big East in 2014 has Villanova lost three games in a row. With a loss Tuesday night, that number will become three.
While Villanova is trending in the wrong direction, the Musketeers are surging. They are seeking an eighth straight win Tuesday night, a mark which would tie Steele’s best streak as Xavier’s head coach.
The Musketeers have gotten things done this year with depth. On the seven-game winning streak, six different players have led the team in scoring. Last time out, it was sophomore Dwon Odom who had a career-high 19 points on 8-9 shooting. That landed him Big East Player of the Week honors. Nate Johnson is the only repeat leading scorer since Xavier’s loss to Iowa State. Even Zach Freemantle, who returned from a leg injury against Central Michigan, has gotten in on the action. Coming off the bench against Ball State, the Preseason All-BIG EAST First Team selection tallied 24 points.
That list of scoring leaders doesn’t even take into account Colby Jones, who may be the most important player on the team. Jones is a remarkably efficient shooter, the team’s best rebounder, and second on the team in assists and steals per game.
Travis Steele has assembled an incredibly deep lineup, and Xavier’s balanced attack seems poised to take advantage of a slumping Villanova squad. However, it seems foolish to assume any weaknesses in a Jay Wright-led team will stay around for long. It may be less than a week into Big East play, but this game could have lasting implications in the conference standings. Both coaches know it. Tuesday night in Philadelphia is the newest battleground in the war for the top spot in the conference.