by Frank Scicchitano
The men’s basketball team will play the third of three straight Big East road games Tuesday when they travel to Rhode Island to take on Providence.
They will be facing a much-improved Friar squad looking to avenge an ugly loss to the Wildcats back in early January.
Villanova played one of its best games of the season in the teams’ first matchup, jumping out to a big lead early and never looking back en route to a 91-61 victory in the Pavilion.
In that game, junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston led the ’Cats with 19 points and seven rebounds while fellow junior guard Darrun Hilliard posted 15 points, going 3-for-6 from three.
Villanova’s depth also played a major role in the rout as its bench outscored Providence’s 38-4. Redshirt sophomore guard Dylan Ennis connected on four of his five three-point attempts and finished the game with 17 points.
Despite being blown out, the Friars received an excellent performance from senior guard Bryce Cotton. Cotton tallied 25 points on 7-of-17 shooting to lead all scorers and was perfect from three-point range, cashing in on all three of his attempts.
The Tucson, Ariz., native is currently second in the Big East in scoring, averaging 21.3 points per game. He has played a major role in the improvement of a Providence team that has battled its way into third place in the Big East and into serious conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats have steamrolled their way to another 20 win season and are hearing whispers of a top seed in the tournament this March. Another win over the Friars, this time on the road, would certainly look good on their résumé.
While they got passed the Friars with minimal effort earlier this season, Villanova needs to be cautious of traveling to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Providence has knocked off some quality Big East opponents on their home court this season, including an 81-68 win over Creighton. Although another blowout would be ideal, the Wildcats should anticipate and plan for a closer game this time around.
Close games are often won or lost from the free throw line. If Villanova finds itself in a tight contest this time around, it will be crucial to avoid sending the Friars to the charity stripe.
Cotton is one of three Friars who rank in the top 10 in the Big East in free throw percentage, shooting them at a .834 clip. The others are LeDontae Henton (.804) and Tyler Harris (.860), both of whom are more than capable of drawing contact and changing the game from the line.
Villanova, however, has shown all season that they are more than capable of playing tight, aggressive defense while staying out of foul trouble. Senior James Bell is not only the team’s best three-point shooter, but he is also one of its most reliable defenders.
Bell is a versatile player on defense and will likely see time guarding multiple Providence players, including Henton, a 6-6 junior who had 17 points in the teams’ first meeting.
While he usually spends his time matched up against opposing small forwards on the perimeter, Bell is also a pesky defender in the post when Villanova decides to play small.
Despite the mismatch in the height category, he does a good job of knocking opponents out of position and will make it difficult for the Friars to get the ball inside to their big men.
Of course Villanova’s key player down low, at least on defense, is sophomore Daniel Ochefu. The 6-11 forward is amongst the conference’s best shot blockers and his newfound confidence on the offensive end has made him a constant threat the entire time he is on the floor.
If Ochefu remains smooth and confident with his post offense and plays smart, foul-free defense, Villanova should win the matchup under the basket at both ends.
While the Wildcats have grown into the identity of a three-point shooting team, Pinkston remains their most consistent option on offense. He sits just outside the top ten in the Big East in points per game, but is fifth in the conference in field goal percentage.
A team that attempts as many three-point shots as Villanova is always at risk of going cold. Luckily for the Wildcats, they have one of the most efficient scorers in the Big East to lean on if things head south from behind the arc.
When it comes down to it, Providence simply does not have the horses to keep up with Villanova. Cotton and Henton can certainly put points on the board for the Friars, but the Wildcats should have no problem finding the offense to bring home the victory.
Nevertheless, it will certainly be a great contest between two of the top teams in the Big East.