Villanova's No. 1 ranking on line vs. Notre Dame
Villanova withstood a furious rally by Big 5 rival La Salle in its last game before pulling away for an 89-79 victory at the Palestra.
The next challenge promises to be even tougher for the No. 1-ranked Wildcats — a matchup against No. 23-ranked Notre Dame Saturday at noon ET in the inaugural Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Villanova (9-0) is off to a fast start in its quest to become the first program to repeat as national champions since Florida in 2006-07.
“La Salle came in with a good game plan against us and played with a little more energy than us,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said after the win over the Explorers on Tuesday night. “They played really well against us. We didn't have our best game because of them and we found a way to grind it out. Any game you get in like this is valuable, win or lose. It's more fun to win and learn from it.”
Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson scored a career-high 26 points against La Salle. Brunson knocked down 10 of 17 shots, including a pair of clutch jumpers down the stretch.
“He's one of those guys that you know at any point that you need a bucket, he can go get one for you,” Wright said of Brunson.
National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart scored 21 points as the Wildcats won their first game as the top-ranked team in the country. Villanova spent three weeks atop the Top 25 last February on its way to the school's second national championship.
Notre Dame also enters this game at 9-0, the best start of head coach Mike Brey's era dating to the 2000-01 season. The Fighting Irish opened the 1973-74 season at 12-0.
Since Brey took over, Notre Dame has faced the defending national champion 11 times, coming away with a victory seven times.
Last season, Notre Dame defeated 2015 national champion Duke 95-91 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 16, 2016. Notre Dame then defeated the Blue Devils 84-79 in overtime at the ACC quarterfinals on March 10.
This season, the Fighting Irish have been led by junior forward Bonzie Colson, who earned his first ACC Player of the Week Award on Dec. 5. Colson currently owns a personal six-game streak of double-doubles.
Against Iowa in the he ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Colson scored a game-high 24 points, swept a career-high 17 rebounds and shot 12 for 12 from the free throw line.
Colson had 17 points and 14 rebounds in Notre Dame's most recent victory, 87-72 over Fort Wayne.
“It's staying composed and coming to play early,” Colson told the South Bend Tribune. “As a team, we try to get off to good starts. I feel like we're doing that really well. Excited what we did tonight.”
Senior guard Steve Vasturia paced Notre Dame with 21 points against Fort Wayne.
Villanova will be a much more daunting opponent than Fort Wayne.
“It's just the thing you look forward to, these types of games,” sophomore guard Rex Pflueger told the South Bend Tribune. “It's going to be strictly business when we get there.”
Villanova leads the all-time series with Notre Dame, 18-17.