The preseason favorite in the Big East coaches’ poll, Villanova has largely played to expectations and should contend for that title.
DePaul, though, has emerged as a wholly unexpected surprise early in league play, and the conference-leading Blue Demons look to end a 48-game losing streak to ranked opponents Saturday versus the eighth-ranked Wildcats.
College basketball in Chicago has been somewhat forgotten over the past decade with DePaul (9-7, 3-0) backsliding to a bottom-feeder status. The Blue Demons, who have not been to the NCAA tournament since 2004 and picked to finish last in the 10-team Big East, have already matched their league win total from last season and are seeking four conference victories for the first time since going 6-12 in 2007-08.
”We kind of looked at the Big East as a new beginning for us,” guard Billy Garrett said after DePaul won 70-60 at Creighton on Wednesday. ”Nothing we did prior to our first Big East game against Marquette really mattered to us. We won our six out of seven and then we lost six straight. Now we’re 0-0 in Big East. That’s the way we looked at it. It’s worked out for us so far. So we started out 3-0 and we have to keep it going.”
It was just the 12th conference road win since joining the Big East in 2005 for the Blue Demons, whose last victory over a ranked opponent was an 84-76 triumph over then-No. 17 Villanova on Jan. 3, 2008. Six of those 48 defeats have come to Villanova – including a pair last season by a combined 51 points – and DePaul coach Oliver Purnell is embracing Saturday’s challenge.
"It’s coming at the right time to give us a gauge,” said Purnell, who had gone 9-63 in Big East play his first four seasons. ”We’re going in with the idea we can win the game just like we came in here with the idea we can win the game if we do certain things.”
At 13.1 points per game, Garrett is second on the team in scoring to Myke Henry (13.4), and DePaul is second in the Big East in 3-point shooting (37.0 percent) and 3-pointers made (131). That helps compensate for a porous defense among the worst in Division I giving up 72.9 points per game.
Averaging 76.9 points and possessing a backcourt that attacks in waves, Villanova (14-1, 2-1) once again has an offense that can give DePaul fits. The Wildcats bounced back from their lone loss Tuesday with a 90-72 romp at No. 24 St. John’s, scoring 56 second-half points and shooting 55.7 percent overall.
”It was great, just knowing that this team is able to bounce back,” said Darrun Hilliard, who scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half. ”We watched the film of Seton Hall and we corrected it tonight.”
Hillard leads Villanova in scoring at 13.0 points per game and is one of five players in double figures. Center Daniel Ochefu and forward JayVaughn Pinkston form a potent inside tandem for Villanova, combining to average 20.6 points, 15.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.
"Daniel Ochefu really became a presence inside for us," said coach Jay Wright after the 6-foot-11 center posted his third double-double in four games.
Ochefu has averaged 14.0 points and 15.3 rebounds in Big East play, making 18 of 24 shots.
Villanova has won eight straight over DePaul since that loss on Jan. 3, 2008.