Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright has stalked the sidelines for the last 11 installments of the ‘Holy War’ with Saint Joseph’s. As the Wildcats’ leader can attest, that’s roughly a decade longer than is necessary to understand what the Big Five’s fiercest rivalry is all about.
“It’s a great game,” Wright said before practice Monday. “I actually love playing this game in December, because it means a lot. It’s hard sometimes in the middle of the Big East season. It still means a lot, but you have to take a break between the (conference) season, play a huge game, and then go back to it. It’s really nice when you do it this time of year.”
As usual, records have little meaning when the Wildcats (5-4, 1-2 Big 5) and Hawks (5-2, 0-0) meet Tuesday night for the 70th time (7 p.m., ESPNU). Though Villanova has won three of the last four meetings and holds a 44-25 advantage all-time in the series, it’s the Wildcats with revenge on their minds after head coach Phil Martelli and the Hawks ran away with a 74-58 victory last season at Hagan Arena, the first-ever clash between the schools on the Saint Joseph’s campus. For Villanova’s veterans, payback at the Pavilion, where the Hawks haven’t won since 2004, would be sweet.
Not that the Wildcats need any extra motivation against their biggest rival.
“We have to watch the tape from last year and see what we did wrong,” senior center Maurice Sutton said a day before his fifth Holy War game. “They’re a very athletic team, so we just have to get in there and pressure them, do what we do.
“I’m very excited. One, just because its the next game. But it’s definitely St. Joe’s and the rivalry, so I’m definitely very excited for this game.”
“Last year we lost our composure,” Wright added. “We got down and tried to make up four or five points in one play, rather than trying to get it back for each other. We’ve got to play our game, we’ve got to do what we do and keep getting better.”
After a 68-55 victory over Penn on Saturday, the Wildcats head into the ‘Holy War’ with a Big Five victory under their belts. Four Villanova players hit double figures at the Palestra, a list that surprisingly included sophomore guard Achraf Yacoubou, who set new career highs in points (13), rebounds (six), and minutes (25) as starting point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and reserve Tony Chennault struggled with foul trouble.
“It boosts my confidence, but I’m just going to keep on working, keep getting better and helping the team,” Yacoubou said.
Yacoubou became the seventh different player in nine games to lead Villanova in scoring, an especially promising development for Wright, who hopes the Wildcats can translate advantages in depth and balance to a victory in their Big Five finale.
“I like that,” Wright said. “I’d like to see a little more consistency where you have two or three guys that are always passing that around. Our balance can be a positive for us if we use it the right way.”
Saint Joseph’s will bring its full 13-man roster to the Main Line, but only half is likely to step onto the Pavilion floor in the Hawks’ Big Five opener. Six Hawks average more than 31 minutes per game, led by star shooting guard Langston Galloway (13.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 34.3 mpg) and Chris Wilson (9.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg), Saint Joseph’s top–and sometimes only–reserve.
Sophomore point guard Carl Jones (team-high 15.4 ppg) joins Galloway in the backcourt, while junior forwards C.J. Aiken (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Ronald Roberts Jr. (9.6, 8.7), and Halil Kanacevic (8.8, 7.3) combine to form one of the most impressive frontcourts Villanova will see all season. In the ultra-versatile Aiken and the high-flying Roberts, not to mention Kanacevic and his stat-stuffing abilities, Wright knows his forwards will be tested like never before.
“Their length and athleticism is really impressive,” Wright said. “They’re as long and athletic as anyone we’ll play all year.”
What the Hawks lack in depth, they make up for in talent, relying on their six-man rotation to mask the absence of an effective bench. While Martelli banks on quality, Wright and the Wildcats hope quantity wins out in the end.
“I think so,” Sutton said when asked if Villanova can use its depth to its advantage against the undermanned Hawks. “We’re a very deep team. I think from one through five, we have the depth to wear them down.”
Against a team with a short bench, attempting to incite fatigue and foul trouble isn’t exactly a revelation. With nine players averaging at least 13 minutes per game, Villanova has plenty of bodies to run at the Hawks, meaning a pressing style of defense could be in order at one end. On the other, expect the Wildcats’ frontcourt of Mouphtaou Yarou (8.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Sutton (6.1, 4.0), and JayVaughn Pinkston (11.3, 5.2) to go right at their SJU counterparts, knowing that a few early fouls could turn the tables in their favor. Easier said than done.
The Hawks are the least whistled team in the nation, committing an average of just 12 fouls per game. Part of that can be attributed to experience, part to playing style. With the lanky Aiken spending plenty of time on the perimeter, Kanacevic using his body intelligently, and the Hawks’ guards avoiding the hand-checking whistles that plague many other squads, fouls could be hard to come by. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats won’t try.
“I hope so, but those six guys are really good,” Wright said when asked if he sees the Hawks’ short rotation as an advantage. “Those guys have played together for a number of years, and I think they know how to play without fouling. They’re smart. I’d love to get like four of them in foul trouble. That would be awesome, but I think they’re pretty smart about that.”
Against an athletic Hawks squad that thrives in transition, Villanova will have to be careful with the ball. The Wildcats commit an average of 16 turnovers per game, but were slightly more judicious in Saturday’s victory at Penn, a trend Wright would like to see continue.
“We only had 15 turnovers,” Wright said. “For another team, that wouldn’t be great, but for us that was good. If we can get that down to 10 or so against St. Joe’s, that would be really helpful.”
For Villanova’s veterans, the ‘Holy War’ is self-explanatory. For others playing in their first edition of the rivalry, like Arcidiacono, the meaning will be clear enough as soon as the opening tip is tossed in the air.
“You know it’s always going to be a tough game out there,” Arcidiacono told CoBL. “Each team is going to bring their best. Hopefully we can come out with the win.”