November 25, 2015

Villanova and Stanford have fond memories of their last visits to New York City. Both programs hope to gain another when they square off at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on Thursday in the NIT Season Tipoff.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats earned their first Big East tournament title in 20 years by recording three of their school-record 33 wins March 12-14 at Madison Square Garden, less than three weeks before the Cardinal won twice at the famed venue to claim a second NIT championship in four seasons.

Both teams have incurred significant personnel losses since, though Stanford (2-2) was hit the hardest by the graduations of Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic, a trio that combined for 47.8 points per game last season and were all key contributors to the Cardinal's Sweet 16 appearance in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Villanova was expected to reach a regional semifinal after garnering the East's No. 1 seed in last season's NCAAs but was upset by N.C. State in the third round. Despite the departure of three starters from that 33-3 squad, the Wildcats appear poised for another successful run after winning their first four games by an average of 28.8 points.

Josh Hart and 2014-15 Big East Co-Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono have been the catalysts to this strong start. Both are shooting over 44 percent from 3-point range and Arcidiacono owns a 22-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio after recording eight without a giveaway in Sunday's 75-56 rout of Akron.

"Those are incredible numbers," coach Jay Wright. "Ryan has always played great offensively but I just think he's playing the best offensively since he's been here. Maybe the numbers aren't as high as they've been when we needed him to score more, but the efficiency is off the charts."

Hart, the reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year, is averaging a team-leading 16.5 points and scored a career-high 27 against Akron.

"Josh hit some 3s and got to the rim. He's real good at that," Wright said. "It's hard to do that against teams with length like that. He's the best on our team at that."

The Wildcats posted wins over VCU and Michigan during the 2014 Legends Classic held at Barclays Center, a facility Stanford also has a familiarity with. The Cardinal have split six games there over the previous two seasons, including a victory over UNLV and a loss to Duke in last year's Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

Stanford, 8-4 in New York City since the 2011-12 season, makes its latest trip off losses to SMU and St. Mary's highlighted by defensive struggles. St. Mary's shot 56.6 percent in Sunday's 78-61 decision and the Cardinal allowed the Mustangs to make 55.7 percent from the field in Friday's 85-70 setback.

The Cardinal were outscored 45-24 in the second half Sunday.

"We were as bad as I've seen us be defensively in the second half," coach Johnny Dawkins said. "That's very disappointing. We have to learn from that."

On a positive note, Marcus Allen had 32 points in the two games after missing the first two with a foot injury.

Dawkins also has been seeing strides from his 2014 recruiting class, with sophomores Reid Travis, Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey all averaging at least 10.5 points in expanded roles.

Stanford, 2-5 against ranked teams in 2014-15 and 11-20 over Dawkins' seven seasons, lost its only meeting with Villanova in December 1970.

Thursday's winner will face Arkansas or Georgia Tech in Friday's championship game.

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