by Nick Fattori
After the Big East split up at the conclusion of last season, they lost perennial powers Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and UConn.
Many fans and pundits looked to Villanova and Georgetown to carry the new Big East out of the ashes and back to glory.
One of those teams has followed suit, while the other has underperformed greatly to start the season.
THE TEAMS TO THIS POINT:
’Nova was picked to finish fourth during the preseason, but has completely proven the coaches and experts wrong by running out of the gate and winning 16 of their first 17 games. This quick start has also had them rise all the way to No. 4 in the AP and Coaches Poll.
Things couldn’t be much better on the Main Line right now, with the exception of a disappointing loss to Creighton on Monday.
The ’Cats are playing consummate basketball and are beating teams not only with their offense, but also with their defense.
They rank 22nd, 36th and 22nd in the country in points, rebounds and assists per game respectively. ’Nova is also averaging eight steals and five blocks a game as a team.
Prior to Monday’s loss against Creighton, their impeccable play has had them defeat their first five Big East opponents by an average of 16.2 points per game.
While ’Nova exceeded everyone’s expectations, the Hoyas have done quite the opposite. Georgetown was picked as a very close second behind Marquette to win the Big East.
The Hoyas started the season off very inconsistently, by losing two of their first three games, including one to Northeastern, but recovered a bit and beat top teams Kansas St. and VCU at the Puerto Rico Shootout.
They went backwards again though and dropped three of their last four games conference games after a 2-0 start.
The recent dip cannot be blamed solely on the Hoyas’ play. Junior center Joshua Smith has not played since Jan. 4 due to an academic issue. He was averaging 11.5 points per game before the problem.
Junior guard Jabril Trawick has also not played since Jan. 8 due to a broken jaw. He was a solid role player and gave Georgetown 7.1 points and 2.5 rebounds a game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Juniors JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard Jr. are the key to a Villanova victory, but there are two others who need to be watched: sophomore center Daniel Ochefu and freshman guard Josh Hart. Each have stepped up their play recently and have played major roles for the ’Cats.
Ochefu, who has struggled with his offensive game since coming to Villanova, has come out of his shell and exploded in the past few games.
In his efforts against St. John’s and DePaul, he combined to shoot nine out of 10 from the field and averaged 12 points, 6.5 boards and 2.5 blocks. The Hoyas have been known to play physical defense, so his play on the interior may decide a close game.
Hart has absolutely killed it for the ’Cats this season. Freshman forward Kris Jenkins was seen as the top freshman for ’Nova this season, but Hart’s hustle and toughness has clearly shown he has surpassed him.
Starting with the La Salle game and going all the way to DePaul, Hart has scored in double digits every game, averaged 12.5 points a game and shot at least 50 percent from the field in seven of those eight games.
Because the Hoyas are missing two key players, their two stars, sophomore and senior guards D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks have become more important than ever.
Smith-Rivera has been one of the few bright spots for the Hoyas. Following the departure of NBA Lottery pick Otto Porter, someone needed to pick up the slack.
He has done precisely that and averaged 17 points, five rebounds, three assists a game, as well as nearly shooting 50 and 45 percent from the field and 3-point land respectively.
Starks will also have to score in order to help G’town to a victory. He has helped carry the offensive load this season, but has struggled to shoot the ball.
His average of 15.2 points per game puts him at second within the team, but his 39 percent shooting from the field has hurt the Hoyas at times. In order to beat the ’Cats, he will need to shoot over 45 percent.
ANALYSIS AND PREDICTIONS:
The Wildcats have lost eight of their last ten against Georgetown dating back to the ‘06-’07 season, but beat the No. 5 Hoyas last season 67-57 at the Wells Fargo Center.
However, this game will be played in the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., a place where the ’Cats have not won since 2007.
Things are about to change though for Villanova. Their ability to shoot the ball consistently, as well as the improved inside game will be the difference maker.
Georgetown will keep it close for a while, but the loss of two of its best players will hurt them in the latter part of the game. The ’Cats will continue their early season dominance and will leave D.C. with a 71-60 win.