by Brett Klein
The Wildcats will battle the Temple Owls on the road Feb. 1 at 4 p.m. Temple, ’Nova’s Big Five rival, is struggling so far this season under Head Coach Fran Dunphy.
The Owls record stood at just 5-12 overall and 0-6 in the American Athletic Conference before their contest against the conference-leading Cincinnati Bearcats Jan. 26.
Villanova has fared far differently than the Owls this season, with an overall record of 17-2 leading up to their matchup with Georgetown Jan. 27.
Despite their impressive success, the No. 4 Wildcats were roughed up by Big East foe Creighton Jan. 20 at the Wells Fargo Center for their first loss against a Big East opponent.
As Nova Nation is well aware, the Creighton Blue Jays used an unfathomable barrage of improbable threes to trounce the Wildcats by a final score of 96-68. The now infamous Ethan Wragge of Creighton tallied 27 points while hitting nine of his 14 three pointers.
In spite of the improbable blowout, the ’Cats still find themselves with an impressive record and NCAA tournament resume.
The team has been paced offensively this season largely by senior forward James Bell, junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston and junior guard Darrun Hilliard.
Each of the three upperclassmen has stepped his game up from a season ago and together they have powered the Wildcats to national recognition among the Division One elite. Bell is averaging 15.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in this year’s campaign after tallying just 8.6 points per contest a season ago.
Pinkston is scoring over 15 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field while Hilliard adds just fewer than 14. Pinkston is a rare inside offensive presence for a team that has been successful pouring in buckets from long range.
Despite their poor record, the Owls have four players averaging double-digit points per game. Senior guard Dalton Pepper leads the team at 17 points per game, while junior guard Will Cummings and sophomore guard Quenton DeCosey each score just north of 16 points per contest. Lastly, junior forward Anthony Lee is putting up just over 14 per game for the Owls.
A key for Villanova will be to limit Temple’s key scorers, namely Pepper, Cummings and DeCosey. As the Wildcats have seen first-hand, if a team’s best players get hot it can be difficult to slow them down and keep the game within reach.
Head Coach Jay Wright’s team has exhibited stifling defense on most occasions this season, often stemming from their press that is designed to slow their opponent down as they try to advance the ball up the court.
The ’Cats attempt to trap opposing ball handlers near the sidelines on the press, which often causes the scoring guards to have to give up the ball. Aside from the ’Cats’ loss to Creighton, their performances against lower-ranked teams have been impressive.
After victories over perennial powerhouses Kansas and Iowa early on in the season, it would have been easy for the Wildcats to become complacent when taking on lesser foes.
That has not been the case, however, as the team has taken care of business at home and on the road including wins at Butler, St. Joes, Seton Hall and most recently, Marquette.
Despite being somewhat undersized, the Wildcats have shown a determined effort to rebound the ball effectively this season and rank 45th in the nation in rebounding as a result. Temple, on the other hand, ranks 157th in that category and 306th in allowing offensive rebounds.
The undersized Bell and Pinkston have made great contributions on the glass along with sophomore forward Daniel Ochefu, who stands at 6-foot-11-inches. Ochefu is only grabbing six boards per contest but his presence down low is felt by any opposing player who dares to drive the lane.
Ochefu’s offensive prowess is seldom on display, largely because the big man has yet to refine most of his offensive arsenal.
Despite that, Ochefu has shown flashes of brilliance with highlight dunks, most notably on two occasions when the Wildcats defeated the St. Johns Red Storm at Madison Square Garden.
The Wildcats have had difficulty closing out games this season when it seemed the game was all but over. The team surrendered late-game leads to Butler and Marquette with a combination of missed free throws and turnovers, but was able to regain control and grab the victories in overtime.
Although Villanova goes to Temple as the heavy favorite, the ’Cats must go into the game ready to take care of business, as they have done all season.
Their bout with Temple will be the last of three straight road games for the Wildcats, after which they will return home to The Pavilion to take on Xavier Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.