Villanova-St. John's Preview
Villanova has had a full week to deal with losing a Big East game for the first time in over a year. For St. John's, the wait between wins is beginning to feel like an eternity.
The sixth-ranked Wildcats look to start a new streak and extend the Red Storm's longest skid in school history when the longtime conference rivals meet Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Villanova (17-3, 7-1) survived close calls at Georgetown and Seton Hall to lengthen its unbeaten run over league opponents to 22 games, but Providence's combo of Ben Bentil and Kris Dunn proved too much in last Sunday's 82-76 overtime loss to the then-No. 16 Friars in Philadelphia. Bentil scored 10 of his 31 points in OT and Dunn added 13 points and 14 assists to help hand the Wildcats their first conference defeat since at Georgetown on Jan. 19, 2015.
"We've won a few games on the road where we didn't play our best and found a way to win. (Sunday) we didn't play our best but a lot of it was because they did," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. "Two outstanding players made big plays but they also made the players around them better."
The Friars went 46.2 percent from the field to drop Villanova, the Big East's leader in scoring defense and field goal percentage defense, to 0-3 when opponents shoot 46 percent or better. The Wildcats have been outrebounded in all three losses as well.
Accomplishing both goals seems like a monumental challenge for rebuilding St. John's (7-14, 0-8), still in search of its first Big East win under legendary former player Chris Mullin. In Big East play, the Red Storm rank last in shooting at 36.6 percent and last in rebounding margin (-6.3) while permitting 80.8 points per game.
Mullin inherited a program that lost its top six scorers from a 21-win NCAA Tournament 2014-15 season, and those defections have been felt most during a school-record 11-game losing streak.
"In reality it makes perfect sense what's going on," he said. "It doesn't make it easier or harder, but this is what resetting and rebuilding is."
Three of the Red Storm's last four losses have come by 19 or more points, including Wednesday's 79-60 defeat at Seton Hall in which they shot 29.2 percent - their worst showing since January 2012.
A return to Madison Square Garden could provide a boost. St. John's is 2-1 at the venue this season and recorded its last win there with an 84-72 upset of Syracuse on Dec. 13.
Home court, however, hasn't been an advantage in recent games with Villanova, which earned its seventh straight road win in the series with a 90-72 victory last January. The Wildcats also routed the Red Storm 105-68 in Philadelphia on March 7 for its seventh consecutive win and 13th in the past 14 matchups.
St. John's couldn't stop Daniel Ochefu last season, with the senior center totaling 34 points on 14-of-16 shooting and 22 rebounds.
"They've got the combination of really good guard play and rebounding with a big man," Mullin said. "It's a big challenge."
However, Ochefu is averaging just 5.8 points in five games since posting season highs of 20 points and 18 rebounds against Seton Hall on Jan. 6.