By Peter Gleason
It was Madison Square Garden and Villanova won the Big East tourney title for the first time since 1995.
That was a different Big East — the conference that sprung up on the talents of Patrick Ewing, Pearl Washington and Ed Pinckney, the stars of Georgetown, Syracuse and Villanova.
The teams are different— Xavier, Creighton, Marquette — but the satisfaction for Jay Wright and his wonderful Wildcats is the same.
And Saturday night wasn’t a championship game — it was a coronation.
A coronation for the best — by the numbers — regular-season team in Villanova history, at 32-2, for the Big East’s Final Four hopes over the next three weeks, for the team that has owned this league since it was reconfigured prior to last season.
The result was never in doubt, nor should it have been. Top-seeded Villanova, after a subpar effort in an overtime win over Providence on Friday night, built a big early lead and never looked back, absolutely overwhelming No. 6 Xavier, 69-52, for its first Big East Tournament crown since 1995, and almost certainly locking up a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released Sunday night.
“It’s a thrill, man,” Wright said.
With the win, Villanova improved to a dominant 35-5 in this new Big East. It’s the Wildcats and everybody else until further notice in the conference.
“That’s where the bar is in this league,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “They set the standard. They have a chance to win a national championship.
“They aren’t given nearly enough credit for how tough of a team they are, for how they play, for how unselfish they are. They are the true definition of a team.”
Indeed, it was its balance that ruled the evening, because the Wildcats don’t have one star, but several of them. Xavier stood no chance against the versatile and potent ball-moving Villanova attack, overcome by the quicker, deeper and deadly shooting Wildcats, buried under a barrage of 3-pointers and slashing drives.
Dylan Ennis led the charge with 16 points, sophomore Josh Hart — the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after making 21-of-29 shots — came off the bench to score 15 and Darrun Hilliard II had 12. Eight Wildcats scored, as Villanova shot a blistering 51 percent from the field.
“We have guys that are capable of being stars, but they know they don’t have to be, and they accept that,” Wright said. “They love being a part of the team, and I think that’s our strength, that a number of these guys could be stars if we needed them to be.
“We’ll see how they do in this next tournament, but this does have a chance to be the best team I’ve ever had.”
Last year’s lost postseason seemed like a distant memory Saturday night, the opening-round Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall and stunning opening-weekend setback to eventual national champion UConn.
Many of the same players came back this year for Wright, but they got better, matured and developed, using last season as a learning tool. Hilliard became the reliable go-to guy, more than just a spot-up shooter. Senior JayVaughn Pinkston accepted a lesser role for the good of the team, taking the fewest shots of his career. Hart initially was disappointed to come off the bench, but maturely dealt with the demotion and was the Big East Sixth Man of the Year. Daniel Ochefu emerged as a viable post option, adding a much-needed dimension for the perimeter-oriented Wildcats.
Wright said he thinks that all will make a difference when the NCAA Tournament begins, and gives his team a chance to cut down the nets in Indianapolis the first week in April. Yet, he isn’t planning any parades, either.
“We’re not Kentucky in terms of depth and talent, but we could beat them,” he said. “But we could lose to a 15 or 16, too, if we don’t play right.”