Wildcats look to stay hot at Notre Dame

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
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There’s a different feel around Villanova these days.

The campus is buzzing. Practices have taken on a distinct tone, relaxed and aggressive all at once. Students are talking ad nauseum about the NCAA Tournament, something that seemed as unattainable as the Holy Grail a week ago. While the weather outside remains ice cold, the Wildcats are suddenly red-hot.

Nothing like back-to-back victories over top-five powerhouses to change the paradigm.

“This is uncharted territory for us, this kind of success and attention,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. “Now we have to bring everybody back down to Earth.”

Wright’s young squad can be forgiven for spending some time on Cloud Nine of late. After all, the Wildcats (13-7, 4-3 Big East) are mere days removed from a week for the ages. With upsets over then-No. 5 Louisville on Tuesday and then-No. 3 Syracuse on Saturday, Villanova knocked off a pair of top-five opponents in consecutive games for the first time since the 1985 unit cut down Memphis State, Georgetown, and the nets at that year’s Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky.

All of a sudden, a team mired in a three-game losing streak and going nowhere fast a week ago finds itself in rarefied air. The next challenge for these Wildcats, starting with Wednesday’s trip to Notre Dame (6 p.m., ESPN2), is that with great wins comes great responsibility.

Darrun Hilliard (4) and Villanova look to steal one on the road against Notre Dame (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Darrun Hilliard (4) and Villanova look to steal one on the road against Notre Dame (Photo: Josh Verlin)

“We’ve got to try to share experiences with them of some of the success we’ve had in the past and the challenges that come with that experience,” Wright said. “One of them is sitting around after that game Saturday, and for two days watching yourself on TV and realizing that that’s over. It’s also realizing when you play the next team, how fired up those guys are and the level that they’re going to play against you based on your past success. I don’t think our guys are even considering that right now, that Notre Dame is watching the same thing and they’re going to come with a great intensity level.”

As if leaving South Bend with a win wasn’t daunting enough. Purcell Pavilion has been a house of horrors for opponents over the past few years, giving the Fighting Irish (16-4, 4-3) a distinct home-court advantage. Notre Dame has won 21 of its last 24 Big East games there, and 48 of 51 overall. The Wildcats returned from their last foray into frigid northern Indiana the victim of a 93-72 thrashing in February of 2011.

“I played there once, in my freshman year,” said junior forward James Bell, “and it got ugly.”

Gone from that forgettable performance, however, are Notre Dame stars Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, each of whom poured in 30 points in the teams’ last meeting in South Bend. Bell and senior big men Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton are the only members of this Villanova squad who were there that day, but the Irish’s dominance at home isn’t lost on Wright’s inexperienced outfit. Though the characters have changed, the story remains largely the same.

“The toughest thing about Notre Dame is (head coach) Mike Brey and their style of play,” Wright said. “They play with a lot of confidence on offense. They just let the threes fly, and when they play in their home environment and do that, they’re very difficult to defend. The crowd is great; when they hit a couple threes that place gets rocking and it’s hard to slow them down.”

The Wildcats had all kinds of trouble slowing down Notre Dame’s patient offensive attack in the teams’ most recent meeting. Villanova rushed out to a 20-point lead in the first half, only to watch the Irish knock down 12 three-pointers and storm all the way back for an overtime victory at Wells Fargo Center. That, however, was last year. And to this edition of the Wildcats, that might as well be ancient history.

“Now once we’ve figured out how to close out games, I think we’re just going to get it rolling,” said freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who hit the game-tying three with 2 seconds left in Saturday’s upset of Syracuse. “Hopefully we can continue our success at Notre Dame.”

It won’t be easy. Notre Dame is one of the best shooting teams in the nation, leading the Big East in both field-goal percentage (.500) and three-point percentage (.397) and ranking third in the country in assists per game (18.7). Point guard Eric Atkins (12.0 ppg, 6.4 apg), shooting guard Pat Connaughton (9.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), and swingman Scott Martin (7.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) all shoot better than 40 percent from long range, while Jerian Grant (12.8 ppg, 5.4 apg) and bullish center Jack Cooley (14.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg) give the Irish a deadly inside-outside combination.

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against Notre Dame on Wednesday (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Villanova coach Jay Wright leads the Wildcats against Notre Dame on Wednesday (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Cooley, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds against the Wildcats a year ago, leads the Big East in rebounding and has recorded 12 double-doubles on the season, while backup Tom Knight has proved an effective option off the bench, exploding for 17 points in a win at South Florida on Wednesday. Martin won’t play for the Irish on Wednesday because of a bad knee, but freshman Cameron Biedschied has shown flashes of prolific scoring, averaging 7.0 points per game in just 16 minutes of action.

Defensively, the Irish have little in common with the ultra-aggressive press of Louisville or the swarming 2-3 zone employed by Syracuse. Notre Dame averages just 5.3 steals per game, dead last in the conference, and forces slightly more than 10 turnovers per contest. For a Villanova team that has struggled all season long with miscues, that sounds like great news. Not so fast, says Wright.

“When you a play a team like Louisville or Syracuse, you fear that they’re going to turn you over,” the 12th-year coach said. “Now, you hope that if Notre Dame doesn’t turn you over, then you can make shots. There’s always a challenge in each game. Notre Dame’s got the kind of defense where they look like they’re sitting back, but they’re very aggressive playing personnel. They know who the shooters are, and they rebound extremely well.”

Regardless of what Notre Dame does, the Wildcats are confident that if they play their game, the wins will continue to come. After their last two, talk of the NCAA Tournament has spread like wildfire around campus, and the season’s last 11 games have taken on a new importance as Villanova attempts to build a resume worthy of the Big Dance. Amidst the hoopla, however, the Wildcats are focusing only on the hoops.

“This is my first time hearing about it, and people have been telling me about it, and I’ve just been like, ‘okay, that’s cool,’” Arcidiacono said. “It’s still a long season left to go. We still have 11 games left, and we’ll see how that goes. Hopefully people keep talking about us and hopefully we can keep winning and improve our resume and things like that, but I haven’t thought much about that. We’re just focused on Notre Dame right now and trying to come out and be the best Villanova basketball team we can be.”

“We hear it,” Bell added. “It’s kind of hard not to. We’re just focused on getting better. Those games are over, and now we’re just on to the next practice.”

NOTES: Villanova leads the all-time series 18-15…Wright is 6-7 against Notre Dame in his career…The Wildcats’ last win in the series was a 90-72 thrashing in January of 2010…The game was moved up an hour from its original 7 p.m. start…Villanova shooting guard Darrun Hilliard was named Big East Player of the Week on Monday. Hilliard (10.8 ppg) averaged 18 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in the Wildcats’ wins over Louisville and Syracuse.

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