Wildcats look to squeeze No. 3 Orange

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
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Three days ago, Villanova was mired in a three-game losing streak, one that appeared almost certain to swell to six with ranked opponents Louisville, Syracuse, and Notre Dame lurking on deck. After last year’s 11-19 debacle, it looked for all the world like the wheels were about to fall off again. Then the Wildcats upset the 5th-ranked Cardinals.

My, how quickly things can change.

“I felt like it was a breakthrough game for us,” said freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who scored a team-high 15 points in Tuesday’s 73-64 stunner at Wells Fargo Center. “We stuck it out for 40 minutes and played together.”

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova will go for a second straight win over a top-five team on Saturday (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova will go for a second straight win over a top-five team on Saturday (Photo: Josh Verlin)

As the horn sounded on their first win over a top-10 team in two years, the Wildcats were swarmed by a host of court-storming students, basking in the glow of shocking the college basketball world eight years to the day after Villanova upset No. 2 Kansas in the same building. It was a watershed moment for head coach Jay Wright and his young squad. Now the challenge is to get back to the point where victories like Tuesday night’s aren’t a surprise.

“I think our guys come in here believing they can beat top-10 teams, believing they belong with top-10 programs,” Wright said before practice Thursday. “We haven’t proven it every year, but I think when kids come in here they expect that. Now they’ve got to prove that they can do it consistently.”

Four days removed from their signature victory, the Wildcats (12-7, 3-3 Big East) get the chance to do just that as No. 3 Syracuse (18-1, 6-0) invades the Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday matinee (11 a.m., ESPNU). A win, as tall an order as it is, would hand the Orange their first loss in conference play and give Villanova back-to-back scalps of top-five teams in the same week. Two signature upsets, two chances to rush the floor at their home away from home.

After all, it’s becoming an epidemic in the City of Brotherly Love. La Salle knocked off No. 9 Butler Wednesday night for its first win over a top-10 team since 1980. Continuing the trend Villanova started, the Explorers cemented themselves firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture. A victory on Saturday, and the Wildcats will do the same.

“I hope we can keep it going,” Wright said. “We want to keep it going in Philly, make it hard for top-10 teams to come here.”

Coming to Philly proved plenty difficult for Louisville. Knocking off the Orange, even in front of what figures to be a charged-up partisan crowd, might be the Wildcats’ toughest task this year. One, indeed, they already failed at once.

Villanova took a lead into halftime just two weeks ago at the Carrier Dome, but a rash of turnovers and a second-half spurt by the Orange resulted in a 72-61 setback. The Wildcats shot 32 percent from the floor (17-for-54) in that contest and committed 16 turnovers, six of them by Arcidiacono, who was held to just seven points, almost five below his season average of 11.8 per game.

“We turned the ball over a lot, myself included…We had a shot, and we turned the ball over twenty-something times,” Arcidiacono said. “We didn’t play together for a full 40 minutes, and there were stretches in the second half where we were just doing our own thing. Everyone was just kind of thinking about themselves. We learned that we have to stay together.”

Against legendary coach Jim Boeheim and the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone, cohesion is paramount. With a stable of long, athletic players, Syracuse forces turnovers at almost a 25-percent clip, good for 15th in the nation, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Orange rank third in the Big East in turnover margin, forcing more than 17 per contest, and second in both blocked shots (7.2) and rebounding margin (+7.6). Syracuse allows opponents to make just 35.6 percent of their shots, tops in the conference, and corrals 41.6 percent of its misses on the offensive end. Any way you crunch the numbers, it all adds up to a monumental challenge for Wright’s inexperienced outfit.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against No. 3 Syracuse. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Villanova head coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against No. 3 Syracuse. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

With the 6-6 Michael Carter-Williams (12.3 ppg, 9.2 apg) running the point and 6-4 shooting guard Brandon Triche (14.5 ppg) patrolling the perimeter, it’s difficult to penetrate the first wave of the Syracuse zone, and just as daunting to keep the talented tandem out of the paint on the other end. Add ultra-athletic wing C.J. Fair (13.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who scored a game-high 22 points in the first matchup, Philadelphia native Rakeem Christmas (6.4, 5.3), and a collection of shot-blocking bigs, and the Orange are as challenging to prepare for as any team in the nation.

“They’ve got great length and strength, and then you add skill to that,” Wright said. “They’re big, they’re long, they’re strong, and they’re skilled.

“Triche as a senior guard is as tough as anybody in the country. And Carter-Williams is young, but he plays in an experienced way.”

Wright can only hope the Wildcats do the same Saturday. After Tuesday’s landmark victory, Villanova feels it can beat anyone.

“I really think they always thought they could beat anybody, they just needed to do it,” Wright said. “I just think it gives them the stamina to keep pushing, even with whatever happens against Syracuse. We’re going to keep pushing and keep getting better.”

“Definitely,” Arcidiacono said when asked if the Wildcats feel that way. “Louisville is a great team; very well-coached, great players and everything. We’re just focused on Syracuse now, but we feel like we can beat anyone. We just have to play a full 40 minutes like we did against Louisville.”

If the Wildcats do, another shocking upset could be in the works. The Orange were far from dominant their last time out, but managed to run their home winning streak to 35 games after closing with a 9-1 run in a 57-55 victory over Cincinnati on Monday. Villanova was down just one with 11 minutes remaining in the teams’ first meeting, so the Wildcats know they can compete with Boeheim’s highly-touted group. And the way things have been going in Philadelphia lately, the Wells Fargo Center could certainly hold more magic.

“We’re going to have to bring some energy,” Arcidiacono said. “I know everyone is going to be a little tired, Syracuse will be tired, but that’s not an excuse. Our game is at 11:00, and we’re going to have to come out and play like it’s a 7:00 game.

“Hopefully (the student section) can come support and all of Nova Nation will be out on Saturday. I know it’s early for them, but hopefully they’ll be out there supporting us and we’ll have another big crowd.”

After all, what better way to start the day than with a fresh-squeezed Orange?

NOTES: Syracuse leads the all-time series 38-31…Wright is 10-8 against the Orange, and 9-11 in his career against top-5 teams…Syracuse is 7-4 at Wells Fargo Center, including a 79-66 triumph there last year…Wright will be looking for his 250th career victory at Villanova on Saturday.

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