Wildcats brace for tough test at Syracuse

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
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Jay Wright and Villanova haven’t lost in over a month.

Victorious in their last seven games, the Wildcats are already nearing last season’s win total and convincing their loyal fan base that the turnaround from last year’s debacle is legitimate with every successful outing. One of five remaining teams with a perfect Big East record, Villanova hasn’t tasted defeat since a setback at the hands of city rival Temple on December 5. Then again, the Wildcats (11-4, 2-0 Big East) haven’t exactly played a challenging schedule during that time. That’s about to change.

Starting with Saturday’s date with No. 7 Syracuse (15-1, 3-0) at the Carrier Dome, the last time the schools will meet there as Big East rivals, Wright’s squad plays five of its next six games against teams in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. After facing the Orange, the Wildcats will tangle with Pittsburgh, No. 3 Louisville, and Syracuse at home, and lock horns with Providence and No. 17 Notre Dame on the road. Against a murderer’s row like that, keeping a winning streak intact is a monumental task. To Wright, that’s what makes it a perfect opportunity for his young team to measure its progress.

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats into the Carrier Dome, perhaps for the final time, on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats into the Carrier Dome, perhaps for the final time, on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

“That’s what’s great about the Big East,” Wright said of the year-long gauntlet that is conference play. “If you’re playing well, you know you’re going to be tested, and if you’re not playing well, you know you’re going to have a chance to prove yourself. I’ve always loved that about the Big East. You always look at that opportunity…We take it one game at a time, but in the back of your mind you always know there are going to be challenges and opportunities.”

The Wildcats, who lost their first three Big East games a year ago, started the conference season with a victory over St. John’s, and backed it up with a road win against South Florida on Wednesday night. During their seven-game spurt, Villanova has outscored its opponents by an average of 12 points per game and received double-figure scoring from nine members of its rotation.

“It just shows that if we play Villanova basketball, we can succeed,” said freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game. “That’s what we’ve been doing these past couple games…We’ve just been doing what we do best and killing each other in practice. We try to transfer that over to the game, and these last couple games I think we have.”

Known for most of Wright’s 12-year tenure as a guard factory, Villanova has transformed into an interior-oriented unit as the season has progressed. Sophomore forward JayVaughn Pinkston (13.3 points per game) continues to lead the team in scoring as its sixth man, while senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou (8.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) recorded his first double-double of the season against the Bulls, scoring a game-high 16 points to go along with 13 rebounds.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, has been the play of Daniel Ochefu. The freshman center received his first career start on Wednesday and played like a seasoned veteran, producing a career-high 12 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes of action. Averaging 4.0 points and 4.7 rebounds on the season, the Westtown graduate has been especially productive of late, totaling 36 points and 37 rebounds in the last five games (7.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg). Ochefu’s development, aided by close-knit mentoring relationships with seniors Yarou and Maurice Sutton, has been a shot in the arm for the Wildcats.

“When you bring in a freshman, you always look at what your vision is,” Wright said. “You don’t look all the time at what he is; you try to envision what he could be. He’s starting to round out into the vision real quickly, and it’s really exciting.

“I thought his approach to his first start in the Big East was so impressive.”

Impressive enough, as it turns out, to land Ochefu a second consecutive starting nod. Wright told CoBL Thursday that the Wildcats will go with Ochefu, Yarou, Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard, and James Bell for Saturday’s noon tip-off. Against a Syracuse team that leads the Big East in rebounding margin, Ochefu figures to play an important role against the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone.

“I expect it to be a typical Big East game, physical and tough,” Ochefu told CoBL. “I know they have that zone, so I know Coach is going to have us run some stuff against the zone. We just have to go out there confidently and play Villanova basketball.”

Villanova's Daniel Ochefu goes up for a rebound against NJIT (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu will get his second career start Saturday against Syracuse. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Playing their preferred style will be a challenge for the Wildcats against a top 10 opponent in a building that regularly seats upwards of 34,00 orange-clad fanatics. Led by legendary coach Jim Boeheim, who ranks second on the all-time list with 904 victories, Syracuse tops the Big East in scoring offense (79.4 points per game), rebounding margin (+9.8), and field goal percentage defense (35.7 percent). The Orange boast four double-figure scorers, led by senior guard Brandon Triche (14.3 ppg), explosive sixth man James Southerland (13.6), and ultra-athletic wing C.J. Fair (13.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg). Sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, meanwhile, averages 12.0 points per game while leading the nation in assists (9.6 per game) and ranking fourth in steals (3.2).

What has Wright’s attention, however, is the Syracuse defense. The 2-3 zone that Boeheim has employed since he took over in upstate New York is infamous, and the Orange possess a treacherous blend of length and athleticism to complement a schematic masterpiece.

“What concerns you is their length defensively,” Wright said. “Their zone probably gets a lot of attention, but maybe not as much credit as it deserves because it creates so much offense for them. If you turn the ball over, they’re so good in transition because of where their guards are located in the zone; they’re just out. We’ve got to take care of the basketball; it’s been a problem for us, so it’s going to be a great challenge given our weakness and their strength.”

Syracuse also leads the Big East in margin of victory, blasting opponents by an average of nearly 22 points per game. The only team to flip the script? Temple, which scored an 83-79 upset victory in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 22. Thanks to 33 points from Khalif Wyatt, the Owls were able to crack the Orange’s zone where so many others have failed. So what did Wright take from Temple’s success?

“If I could bring Khalif Wyatt and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson with us,” Wright said. “That’s what they did the best job of. Khalif Wyatt was just incredible controlling the ball against their zone and not turning it over. They got the ball inside to Rahlir right at the foul line area, and he made great decisions, great plays. I really thought it was how those two attacked it, and where Fran put those two was really smart.”

With many of his players about to set foot in Division I’s largest arena for the first- and perhaps last- time, Wright knows his Wildcats, tied for last in the conference with 15.7 turnovers per game, will need to make smart decisions on the fly. After all, there’s only so much he can do to prepare them for Syracuse’s zone and distinct home-court advantage. Until they see it in person, the Wildcats won’t truly know what to expect.

“I think we’re ready,” Wright said. “What’s always tough is when you bring young guys up to the dome and you see Syracuse’s zone in person, it’s a lot different than whatever you’ve put together in practice. It’s always a great place to play. Our guys have always loved to play up there, and I hope we can keep it going when the leagues change.”

NOTES: Syracuse leads the all-time series 37-31…Villanova is 13-14 all time at the Carrier Dome…The Orange won the last two meetings between the schools, taking last season’s battle at the Wells Fargo Center, where they will meet again on Jan. 26…The Wildcats won 83-72 in their most recent trip to the Carrier Dome in January of 2011…Wright is 10-7 against Syracuse in his career…Bell has seen his scoring drop to 9.9 points per game after totaling just 11 in his last three games on 3-of-18 shooting.

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