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The Big East Tournament was once a be-all and end-all for Villanova basketball. Win the conference tournament and everything else was gravy.
But after as much success as the Wildcats have enjoyed lately, winning two national championships in three years, the Big East Tournament feels more like a stepping stone these days, though head coach Jay Wright insists he still gets butterflies this time of year.
“It’s impactful, man. It’s impactful to me now,” the Villanova coach said Thursday. “When you walk on that floor, it’s different. It’s exciting.”
The outcome wasn’t much different in Villanova’s Big East quarterfinal game that in recent years; the top-seeded Wildcats dispatched No. 8 seed Providence, 73-62. Villanova (23-9) has reached the championship game of the Big East Tournament for four consecutive seasons, winning three, losing only to Seton Hall in 2016. March in the Garden has been prep work for winning the national title in 2016 and 2018.
What’s different this year is the way Villanova must play to win. Four members of last year’s national title team landed on NBA rosters, leaving a group that is a far cry from those 3-point-shooting teams that dazzled you with their talent and their finesse.
This is a blue-collar group that depends on lockdown defense and getting bruised and bloody if necessary. It’s an identity they resorted to after the Friars tied the game at 44-44 with 9:18 remaining. Villanova tightened its defense and outscored Providence 14-4 over the next four minutes to re-establish control.
“It wasn’t pretty, but you’ve got to be willing to play ugly and win some of those games,” Wright said. “I’m proud of those guys that they did that.”
Winning ugly could be the theme of this year’s Villanova team, and that’s just fine with these Wildcats. Villanova led the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 67.9 points per game, and was second in defensive field-goal percentage at 43.5 percent. They held the Friars to 40.8 percent shooting.
“Coach tells us to lead by example and do the little things – playing defense, rebounding, not worrying about if your shot’s going in,” senior forward Eric Paschall said. “I just feel like our whole team has been doing that. Our whole team’s had a great attitude, and we’re taking a step in the right direction.”
Four players — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman — were drafted from last year’s national championship team that seemed to breeze through the NCAA Tournament before whipping Michigan 79-62 in the title game. This year’s squad, led by seniors Paschall and Phil Booth, has had to battle through an inconsistent season that included four losses during a five-game stretch in February. Not a lot has come easy for this group.
“This team hasn’t really wanted for tough games,” Wright said. “We’ve had plenty of them. In the other years past, we’ve been dominant in some games. This team, every game’s been a tough game.”
Providence coach Ed Cooley was impressed.
“It’s easy to get up here and piss and moan after a loss, but at the same time, you have to recognize the job that Villanova did,” Cooley said. “They were the veteran team. They were the more physical team. They deserved to win and we didn’t.”
Villanova will play No. 4 Xavier, a 63-61 winner over No. 5 Creighton, in the semifinals.
“We’ve just got to play as hard as we possibly can, leave it all out there with no regrets mentally and be the attacking team,” Xavier coach Travis Steele.
It the same “winning ugly” formula you’ll see from Villanova.