Villanova in rare Big East rut

Villanova is stuck in a rut.

The only way for the 10th-ranked Wildcats to snap out of their
late-season malaise is to win a few games at the Big East
tournament – or even the whole thing.

The Wildcats never lost two in a row last season when they
reached the Final Four for the first time since 1985. This year,
they’ve lost four of their last six entering Thursday’s game and
dropped from No. 2 to 10 in the Top 25.

Coach Jay Wright’s team at one point was nearly No. 1 in the
poll and played like a contender for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA
tournament. Both of those are out and the first slump in two
seasons is in.

Here’s the part, though, that has Wright encouraged as the
Wildcats get ready to board the bus for New York. Led by Scottie
Reynolds, the Wildcats finished 13-5 in the Big East – the same
conference record they had last year.

“I understand what it looks like, so I don’t want to seem like
I’m cheering about losing four of our last six,” Wright said.
“It’s just that, we have to look at the big picture, and I’m
pleased with the season.”

Villanova opened the season as the Big East favorite. The
Wildcats were ranked No. 2 for only the third time in team history,
their 20-1 start was the best for a program that began play in
1920, and they won their first nine Big East games. That was in
large part because of a schedule loaded with lower-tier teams such
as Rutgers, St. John’s and DePaul (though they did beat Marquette
twice and Georgetown once).

“There was a lot of hype and expectation with this team,”
Wright said. “Some of it we handled well early. Some of it, we
probably didn’t deserve.”

The second-half skid started with a surprising nine-point loss
at their off-campus home arena to underwhelming UConn. Then came a
loss at Pittsburgh, and now losses in two of their final three
games to Syracuse and West Virginia. Syracuse and West Virginia are
ranked in the top 10, and Pitt is No. 16 in this week’s poll.

It’s not as if the Wildcats (24-6) are getting thumped by
last-place teams. Still, they’re all losses.

“We’re playing better basketball than when we were No. 2 in the
country,” guard Scottie Reynolds said.

The Wildcats, who still earned a double-bye, are mired in their
worst losing stretch since they dropped five straight games and six
of seven in the 2007-08 season. That team rebounded to make the
NCAA tournament and reached the round of 16.

All six of Villanova’s losses this season have come against
teams that spent part of the season ranked in the Top 25.

“We are getting better even though it doesn’t show sometimes in
wins and losses,” Wright said. “We’re getting better defensively,
we’re getting a little bit better rebounding-wise. And we just
played better teams at the end of the schedule.”

The Big East tournament might not be the venue for the Wildcats
to spark their postseason. The 1995 team is the only one to win a
conference tourney title. The Wildcats have never played in the
tournament’s final in Wright’s eight seasons – and six first-year
players on this team leaves it woefully inexperienced.

Villanova will have forward Taylor King for Thursday’s game.
Wright benched King for Saturday’s loss against West Virginia
because of an undisclosed personal issue. King, who transferred
from Duke, is Villanova’s second-leading rebounder.

With the Wildcats playing at full strength, Wright believes they
can win the tournament.

“I always do,” he said.