Wildcats embark on make-or-break road trip

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

For much of the 2012-13 season, Villanova has experienced something of an identity crisis.

Within their first five games, the Wildcats (15-9, 6-5 Big East) lost by 22 to Alabama and by 18 to Ivy League also-ran Columbia, at home no less.  Two months later, they were knocking off top-five opponents Louisville and Syracuse in back-to-back court-storming specials at Wells Fargo Center. A week after that, Villanova lost for a second time to Providence, which earned a season sweep in the friendly confines of the Pavilion. And in the latest twist of a roller coaster season, the Wildcats won their last two games by an average of 25.5 points, displaying a dominance missing from the Main Line for several years. So, as Villanova prepares to hit the road for a make-or-break week, the up-and-down results beg the question:

Will the real Wildcats please stand up?

According to head coach Jay Wright, that’s exactly who showed up on Saturday, when Villanova clamped down on defense and held South Florida to 11 field goals and 23-percent shooting in a 68-40 whitewashing at the Pavilion. Or, at least, some version of them. With an inexperienced unit built around a core of two freshmen, two sophomores, a junior, and a single senior, every day is a work in progress. These days, Wright believes the Wildcats are closer than ever to realizing their full potential.

“I just like where we’re going,” Wright was saying after Saturday’s victory. “We’re getting better.

“Taking care of the basketball, I still think we can get a little bit better; shot selection can get a little bit better, but I like where we’re going.”

Jay Wright and Villanova could use a quality road win, starting Tuesday against Cincinnati. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Jay Wright and Villanova could use a quality road win, starting Tuesday against Cincinnati. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

In the ever-cruel Big East, however, progress isn’t measured in baby steps. The Wildcats took one on Jan. 30 at Notre Dame, taking the Fighting Irish to the wire in one of the nation’s most challenging road venues. Ultimately, the 65-60 setback added nothing to an NCAA Tournament resume devoid of one thing: a signature road win. That, year in and year out, is what punches tourney tickets and bursts bubbles.

Those upsets of Syracuse and Louisville showed the Wildcats that they can play with anyone in the country, and will hold plenty of cache with the selection committee. Whether they’re ready to take the next step is still up for debate. By the end of this week, after trips to Cincinnati on Tuesday (8 p.m., ESPN3) and Connecticut on Saturday (12 p.m., ESPN), Villanova will have its answer.

“I think we said this after Syracuse, but how you play on the road in this league really shows what you’re all about,” Wright said Saturday. “We’ve got to go to Cincinnati and we’ve got to do it. I didn’t think we were bad at Notre Dame, but we weren’t good enough, and we realize that. We realize we have to get better…What we do on the road will prove what kind of team we are. You have to win on the road in this league, but it’s tough. It’s really tough.”

The Wildcats have had a tough time of it away from home. They’re a modest 6-6 on the road, and just 2-3 in conference play, the victories coming against South Florida and DePaul, they of the combined 2-19 Big East record. So to say Tuesday’s showdown at Fifth Third Arena is a statement game would be an understatement.

This time a week ago, a victory over Cincinnati would have been a major scalp. That was before the Bearcats (18-6, 6-5) lost at Providence and to Pittsburgh, sending them tumbling out of the polls and all the way down to a tie for ninth in the Big East. Still, this is the same Cincinnati team that boasts wins over Iowa State, Oregon, Alabama, Xavier, Pittsburgh, and Marquette, the same one that started the season 13-1, the lone setback a one-point heartbreaker against New Mexico. So to return from the Queen City with a ‘W’ would go a long way towards proving that the Wildcats are ‘back,’ ready to turn their Big Dance dreams into a reality.

“We’re feeling good, and we like playing on the road,” Wright said. “This group, I think, has played well on the road.”

One reason for that is that defense travels. The Wildcats can’t always count on an inconsistent offense to be firing on all cylinders, like it was in a 94-71 victory at DePaul last week. What they can hang their hats on is a rapidly improving defense that currently ranks fifth in the Big East, holding opponents to just 39-percent shooting from the field. Winning on the road requires an ability to get stops in crunch time, a task to which these new-look Wildcats believe they’re up after a few weeks of soul-searching.

“We never overlooked defense,” said sophomore shooting guard Darrun Hilliard, averaging 16.1 points over his last eight games. “We took pride in our defense; we just had to figure out the right way to do it: as a team, and not as a bunch of individuals. I think we’re coming along with that.”

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova will go for a crucial road win at Cincinnati on Tuesday  (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Ryan Arcidiacono and Villanova will go for a crucial road win at Cincinnati on Tuesday (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Before the season started, the thought of this Villanova team in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth might have seemed laughable. The Wildcats were coming off the worst season in program history, a 13-19 debacle that left little hope of anything but a slow rebuilding process. All it took was some fresh faces, and a fresh approach.

Freshman Ryan Arcidiacono has solidified the point-guard position. First-year center Daniel Ochefu has stabilized the interior. Sophomores Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston have made major strides, and upperclassmen James Bell and Mouphtaou Yarou have been there every step of the way, steering the ship with veteran hands. All in all, the transformation has been remarkable. As other City Six teams fight for their postseason lives, or struggle through altogether dismal seasons, the Wildcats are a year ahead of schedule.

“I think our play as a unit has really improved,” Wright said. “I think we’re really communicating well defensively and playing as a unit. That takes time. Last year these guys were freshmen. They were new, and even our juniors last year weren’t that experienced. I think you’re starting to see a team that’s really comfortable playing together and playing off each other, and that’s what good teams do.”

Another habit of good teams, those with March Madness aspirations, is winning on the road, in hostile environments against teams playing their best basketball. That’s what Wright said separates Louisville and Syracuse, even as his team was knocking them off, from the Wildcats. This week, then, is their chance to change that.

Go on the road, and come back home with a pair of wins. Easier said than done, without a doubt. But if the Wildcats want to erase any doubt that they’re back, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

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