No. 8 Villanova has hit its stride and has a Big East Conference showdown game approaching in less than two weeks, although potential stumbling blocks await, including one Tuesday night against a longtime rival.
The Wildcats (16-3, 6-1) will take the court at New York's Madison Square Garden to face St. John's, which has owned the matchup of late. As tempting as it would be to look ahead to a Feb. 8 matchup with a Seton Hall team that is undefeated in conference, St. John's figures to give the Wildcats fits.
The Red Storm (13-8, 2-6) have won two of the last three meetings between the teams, including the most recent one last February in the same venue the teams will occupy Tuesday.
Villanova still has plenty of confidence entering the game after its defense has led the team to five consecutive conference victories. The latest came Saturday by a 64-60 margin over Providence. The Wildcats were in control throughout despite the small margin of victory.
Collin Gillespie scored 18 points in the victory while Jeremiah Robinson-Earl added 17, with the defense also playing a starring role by holding the Friars to 39.4 percent shooting in the second half and 23.1 percent from 3-point range.
The concern moving forward for the Wildcats is the foot injury Jermaine Samuels (11.1 points, 5.0 rebounds) sustained in the game. He is day-to-day after he injured his foot against the Friars.
Villanova still overcame Providence in a road game with a packed house of 12,000 rooting against them. They also held off a Friars team that has been up and down all season, opening conference play with four conference victories.
"That's the Big East this year," Villanova head coach Jay Wright told reporters after Saturday's game. "That's what every one of our Big East games has been like. It's what makes this league great. (Saturday) was one of the best college basketball environments in the country. You've got to play against them, you've got to play against the crowd, you've got to play against adversity."
It figures to be a similar vibe at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday against a Red Storm team that, like Providence, has shown its potential, just not consistently enough.
St. John's has a victory over a ranked Arizona team and has defeated upstart DePaul twice, including a convincing 79-66 victory over the Blue Demons at Chicago on Saturday. Prior to that though, the Red Storm had lost six of seven games.
LJ Figueroa scored a career-high 28 points for St. John's on Saturday, including seven 3-pointers on 12 attempts. The Red Storm shot 40.6 percent from distance (13 of 32). It was much improved on their 30.2-percent rate on the season, which is ninth in the 10-team league.
In addition to Figueroa, Mustapha Heron scored 20 points, going 4 of 9 from 3-point range. It was just the second time this season Figueroa and Heron each scored 20 points in a game.
"You've gotta have a defining moment, guys making big plays and feel good about what we're doing," St. John's head coach Mike Anderson said on the weekly Red Storm Report. "It's all that process of learning. You have to learn how to win and that's where we are."
Saturday's game starts a run for the Red Storm where they will play four of their next five games at home.
--Field Level Media