Stephen Pianovich (@SPianovich)
NEW YORK – Back in Madison Square Garden, the epicenter of Big East basketball, Villanova was again on top of the conference.
There was no confetti or net cutting or even a basketball hoop in sight, but Jay Wright’s team was revealed as the favorite to win the 10-team league in a preseason poll by the coaches. The Wildcats won the Big East Tournament last season and the conference’s regular season in both of its first two years since realignment reshaped it prior to the 2013-14 campaign -- and they’re favored to do so again this season.
Villanova was a unanimous selection, receiving nine first-place votes (coaches do not pick their own teams on ballot).
“Expectations aren’t anything we can have control of,” coach Jay Wright said. “What we do control is that we work hard every day. I think over the years, guys like (seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu) have understood that and they pass it on to our younger guys, and they’re intelligent enough to understand that.”
The Wildcats have gone a combined 32-4 in regular season Big East conference games during the last two seasons, winning the league by four games in 2014-15. What’s allowed them to be far and away the best team in league play?
“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of hungry guys (at Villanova),” said St. John’s forward Durand Johnson, who started his college career at Pittsburgh in the old Big East. “And they play together and they play defense, so that’s where I feel like they’ve separated themselves the most.”
“It’s their grit and toughness,” added Providence’s Kris Dunn, the preseason Big East Player of the Year. “They play like the old Big East, they want to bully you. They’re going to pressure you, they’re going to be active.”
So now the rest of the league is asking itself how to catch the Wildcats. According to Wright, the gap is closing with the competition after his team lost three seniors, including JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard who combined to average 24 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season.
Georgetown, Butler and Xavier were picked second, third and fourth, respectively, and Wright noted each is a threat to win the Big East crown this season.
The Hoyas, led by D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, tied for second last season with a 12-6 record. Smith-Rivera averaged 16.3 points last season and was named an All-Big East preseason first-teamer Wednesday.
Butler got 67 points in the poll, and second-year coach Chris Holtmann has a returning duo in Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones that averaged a combined 29.2 points per game a season ago. Xavier is the Big East team that went the furthest in the NCAA Tournament, and the Musketeers bring back three starters from that squad.
So for now, Wright will take ranking atop the conference. But he knows his squad will have to earn it if its still No. 1 in the Big East when the teams reconvene at the World’s Most Famous Arena again in March for the conference tournament.
"We’re humbled colleagues have voted us No. 1, and I have a great respect for those guys, but I’ve started questioning their basketball acumen a little bit," Wright said. "We lost three great players. We have a great team, we have a chance, but I think Xavier, Butler, Georgetown -- this league, there’s a lot of teams that could win.”