No. 1 Villanova looks to continue mastery of DePaul

Villanova coach Jay Wright is proud of how his experienced leaders have approached the first two months of the season, but he also knows they’re looking forward to digging in for conference play in the Big East.

No. 1 Villanova (12-0) gets that chance Wednesday when it travels to take on DePaul at Wintrust Arena in Chicago.

DePaul (7-5) has lost the last 14 meetings to Villanova and has struggled against major-conference competition. The Blues Demons’ five losses have come against Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan State, Oregon and Northwestern.

But there is a little bit of serendipity in play Wednesday. The Blue Demons’ last win over a No. 1-ranked opponent, though, came 65 years ago to the day, when DePaul defeated La Salle 63-61 on Dec. 27, 1952, at the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival.

The Blue Demons are coming off a strong performance in a win over Miami (Ohio). DePaul responded to a tough two-point loss to Northwestern on Dec. 16 by rolling over the RedHawks 83-66 on Dec 21.

Marin Maric and Max Strus combined for 43 points in the win for the Blue Demons, who have won five of six in December.

But now the competition stiffens for coach Dave Leitao’s team. After facing Villanova on Wednesday, the Blue Demons take on No. 6 Xavier.

“I don’t know why we have to be the sacrificial lambs,” said Leitao of opening conference play against Villanova for the second straight season.

Wright and the Wildcats rolled through their pre-conference schedule, picking up wins over Tennessee, Gonzaga and Temple in preparation for Big East play.

“When you get to be as experienced as some of our (veterans) have, you can kind of sense they’re waiting for Big East time,” Wright told the school’s website. “But what’s special about these guys is they do a great job of bringing it every day.

“Guys like Omari Spellman, Dhamir Cosby and Jermaine Samuels, though, they need games like the ones in November and early December,” Wright added. “Even for Donte DiVincenzo, it’s been a good thing.”

Spellman has played well in December and has averaged 16.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in his last five games.

The junior guard tandem of Jalen Branson and Mikal Bridges has combined to average 35.4 points. Bridges had 20 points and Brunson scored 14 points while handing out seven assists in Villanova’s 95-71 rout of Hofstra on Saturday.

Five Wildcats are averaging in double figures. Villanova is outscoring opponents by an average margin of 21.2 points.

“Probably the most efficient basketball team I’ve seen in many, many years,” said Leitao.

While Wright is pleased with his veteran core, he’d like to see some of his younger players increase their contributions in conference play. Wright pointed to freshmen forwards Dermaine Samuels and Dahmir Cosby-Roundtree.

“We need to get our depth going,” Wright said.

With the win over Hofstra, Villanova improved to 61-3 in non-conference play since the 2013-14 season. The Wildcats defeated DePaul in both meetings last season.

After taking on the Blue Demons, Villanova travels to Butler on Tuesday before returning home for games against Marquette and No. 6 Xavier.