Villanova eyes outright Big East crown

Cincinnati, OH ( - Having already clinched at least a share of the regular-season title in the Big East Conference, the sixth-seeded Villanova Wildcats try to leave no doubt as to the top team in the league when they tussle with the Xavier Musketeers at the Cintas Center on Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats, who seem to be flying under the radar when compared to the other top programs in the nation, are enjoying a nine-game Big East win streak, the second-longest conference win streak in program history. On Tuesday night, the team throttled Providence at home by a score of 89-61, moving to 13-2 in league play and 26-2 overall.

This is only the fifth time in nearly 100 years of Villanova basketball that a team has won at least 26 games in a single season. The top win total for the Wildcats stands at 30 from back in 2008-09.

While the Wildcats stand atop the conference standings, Xavier is stuck in the middle of the pack with a split of 16 games. The good news for the Musketeers is that they are 4-1 against Top-25 programs this season, the latest victory coming against 19th-ranked Butler last weekend, 73-56. Unfortunately, the group had a two-game win streak snapped on Monday night with a narrow 58-57 loss to St. John's at Madison Square Garden.

Villanova owns a commanding 19-4 lead in the all-time series with the Musketeers, having won the most recent meeting last month by a score of 88-75 at home. The last time the Wildcats bowed to Xavier was in 2006.

After shooting only 38.5 percent from the floor in the first half against visiting Providence, the Wildcats erupted for a staggering 71.4 percent in the second half, which included 9-of-14 behind the 3-point line. Darrun Hilliard dropped in a game-high 24 points as he converted 6-of-11 out on the perimeter and a perfect 6-of-6 at the free-throw line.

Also scoring in double figures for the hosts was JayVaughn Pinkston with 16 points, to go along with eight rebounds, followed by Ryan Arcidiacono with 13. Off the bench, Kris Jenkins tallied 11 points, thanks to 8-of-9 at the free- throw line, while Phil Booth's 3-of-3 from the floor and 4-of-4 at the charity stripe amounted to 10 points in 18 minutes.

Hilliard has elevated his scoring from 14.7 ppg on the season overall to 16.7 ppg in league play, thanks to his 46.0 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line and 81.0 percent effort at the charity stripe. The team as a whole has knocked down 40.9 percent from the outside against the rest of the Big East, while those league foes are successful on just 32.1 percent of their attempts on the outside. While Hilliard attacks from the perimeter, Daniel Ochefu does the dirty work on the inside with 8.9 rpg and 15 blocked shots, shooting 63.4 percent from the floor along the way.

Xavier led by as many as 11 points just minutes into the meeting with the Red Storm in New York City, but the team ended up hitting just 8-of-24 from the floor in the first half and failed to make a single appearance at the free- throw line. Coming out of the break down by eight, the deficit for the Musketeers reached double figures before they were able to get it down to a single point after 40 minutes of action. Trevon Bluiett dropped in 17 points and Remy Abell 11, to go along with seven rebounds. Matt Stainbrook pulled down a game-high 10 boards, but shot just 1-of-6 from the field and was responsible for three of the unit's 20 turnovers.

The program has five players scoring in double figures when they line up against the rest of the Big East, but the top scorers are Bluiett and Myles Davis with just 12.1 ppg apiece. Stainbrook (10.9 ppg) and Jalen Reynolds (10.3 ppg) have combined to pull down 13.3 rpg and are both shooting at least 56 percent from the floor, fully aware that their strength lies in the paint and not out on the perimeter where they've combined to take just a single 3- point shot. One of two players to have started every conference games, Dee Davis (7.4 rpg) keeps the ball moving with 105 assists.