Wildcats ready for Big 5 battle with Temple

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

Ryan Arcidiacono can say it’s just another game all he wants.

Villanova’s freshman phenom did it before his first Big Five game, an overtime thriller against La Salle. He was doing it Tuesday, a day removed from a tilt against Temple (5-0) at the Pavilion (9 p.m., ESPN2). But no matter how many times Arcidiacono says the Wildcats’ battles with their fiercest rivals are just like any other, head coach Jay Wright isn’t buying it.

“I try to explain to those guys before the first Big Five game every year,” Wright said during a break in practice Tuesday. “Once you play one, and you play one like that, then I think they know. I don’t need to explain it anymore.

“Whatever he thinks about it, I know he’s a tough competitor, and I know he has great respect for it. He watched games against La Salle, and then he played against them. It’s totally different when they play against us. I think he understands that now.”

Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono will play his second career Big Five game on Wednesday against Temple. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Arcidiacono, the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, managed just six and committed six turnovers in the loss to the Explorers, making only one of his seven field-goal attempts. The Neshaminy product, who watched plenty of Big Five games on television before coming to the Main Line, certainly couldn’t miss the added intensity and pressure that accompanies the fights for city bragging rights.

“It was definitely intense…I was just going into the game like it was another game, and that’s what I did,” Arcidiacono said.  “It was definitely intense; going to overtime turned out to be a good first Big Five game, but not the way we wanted to finish it.”

After scoring in double figures in each of his first five collegiate games, including a 25-point effort against Marshall in his second career start, Arcidiacono has managed a total of 14 points in Villanova’s last two contests, committing eight turnovers during that stretch. As opponents watch more tape on the Wildcats, they’ve begun to make concerted efforts to keep Villanova’s play-making point guard from going off.

That, in turn, has led to more opportunities for others, and coincided with an up-tick in production from forwards JayVaughn Pinkston and Mouphtaou Yaro. Regardless of Temple’s defensive game plan, Arcidiacono knows he has to be a catalyst, either by scoring himself or creating opportunities for his teammates.

“Every game is different,” Arcidiacono told CoBL. “We don’t know how teams are going to play us and play me…Every game is an adjustment for me. I want to stick to the attacking way that I want to play as a basketball player and just try to score and create for my teammates.”

The Wildcats (4-3) will need a lot more than Arcidiacono to come away from Wednesday’s prime-time affair with a victory. The Owls are off to their best start since the 1987-88 season and, while they haven’t blown the doors off their opponents in the early going, are thriving with a veteran core led by seniors Khalif Wyatt (15.6 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Scootie Randall (15.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who missed all of last season with a knee injury but has returned to lead Temple in both scoring, rebounding, and minutes in the early going. Mix in sophomore forward Anthony Lee (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), senior forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (9.0, 5.6), and a bevy of contributing freshmen and transfers, and the Owls have more than enough firepower to get Wright’s attention.

(Owls Ready: For the Temple side of the preview, read Anthony Bellino’s story here)

“I like where our team is,” Wright said. “I think tomorrow night will give us another really good test. They’ve got five seniors in their top seven, and they’re good players. They’re deep, solid, smart, experienced. That’s a good team.”

JayVaughn Pinkston has played well of late for Villanova (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Improved play from his frontcourt has done wonders for Wright’s outlook. Pinkston (12.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) has been a consistent option, scoring at least 13 points in four of his last five games, while Yarou (9.0, 5.6) has finally come alive, averaging 18 points and seven rebounds per game over the last two outings after failing to crack double digits in each of his first five. Along with senior center Maurice Sutton, the Wildcats’ big men have taken advantage of a more interior-oriented offensive approach of late.

“We’re finding each other more often now,” Pinkston said. “We’re just getting that team chemistry; we just need to keep getting better and doing the things that we’re doing.

“Coach playing me at the 4 I think makes us a better team, because I can score inside and out. I think we need a little more scoring on the inside, and that’s what we want to do, get the ball inside-out and getting those guys free and the guards scoring.”

Arcidiacono and sophomore shooting guard Darrun Hilliard (10.3 ppg) have been quieter of late, but you’ll get no complaints from Villanova’s backcourt as long as the formula is working.

“They’ve been killing it these past couple games, and why stop if it’s working?” Arcidiacono said. “We’re going to try to keep doing that, and hopefully our guards can make a few more shots and make plays for others.”

After following a 3-0 start with a three-game losing streak, the Wildcats got back on track Saturday at Vanderbilt, coming away with a 62-52 victory in a notoriously difficult road environment. For Wright’s inexperienced group, it was a valuable lesson about preparation, and not taking anything for granted.

“I don’t know if they understand how difficult it is to go on the road to an SEC school and win,” Wright said. “I think they think sometimes, ‘we’re Villanova, and we’re supposed to beat them.’ I don’t think they understand how hard the other Villanova teams had to work to do that.

“I know they know Temple is really good, and I know we’re going to be ready for that. I want them to be ready for the right reasons.”

Against the Owls, Wright knows Villanova, which has won seven of the last 10 meetings, will have to be more careful with the ball. The Wildcats turned it over 17 times in last season’s loss to Temple, a 78-67 decision at the Liacouras Center, and while departed Owl Ramone Moore’s 32-point effort was the primary cause of the outcome, the miscues certainly didn’t help.

“We’ve got to take care of the ball,” Wright said. “We had 17 turnovers last year against Temple. Even some of our turnovers against Vanderbilt, they didn’t press us, they didn’t trap us…We have to tighten that up.”

“There are still a lot of little things that we can pick up and get better at, but overall I thought it was a good effort,” Arcidiacono said of the victory at Vanderbilt. “Maybe we can cut down on the turnovers even more. We protected the ball pretty well against Vanderbilt, but it’s just those little things that we need to keep getting better at so we can win.”

And as much as he might claim otherwise, don’t think for a second that Arcidiacono doesn’t understand the magnitude of Wednesday’s game.

“It’s going to be big,” Arcidiacono said. “Hopefully there’s a good-size crowd, some good energy. We’re just going to have to play our game and play Villanova basketball.”

NOTES: Villanova leads the all-time series, 43-41…Wright is 8-4 against Temple in his career…The home team has won the last four games in the series, and Villanova has won the last six played at the Pavilion…Temple is a 1.5-point favorite.


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