Villanova-Xavier Preview

Villanova just needs one victory in its final two games to clinch its first outright Big East title in more than 30 years.

The sixth-ranked Wildcats’ first chance to end that drought takes place Thursday night when they travel to take on Xavier.

Villanova (26-3, 14-2) was off Tuesday when it wrapped up at least a share of the conference championship as second-place Creighton lost to Georgetown. That left the Wildcats 1 1/2 games ahead of the Bluejays but with a game in hand.

Two days earlier, coach Jay Wright’s team finished off the sweep of a three-game homestand with a 73-56 victory over Marquette behind Darrun Hilliard’s season-high 26 points.

Villanova hadn’t won the Big East since 2006, when it split the regular-season championship with Connecticut. The school’s last outright title came in 1982. The Wildcats close the regular season by hosting the Hoyas on Saturday.

"All of us are human. We see everything going on around us," Wright told the school’s website about the chance to win a championship. "When we come in to practice, though, or when we get together on the road, we talk about blocking all of that out. We’ve got to enjoy the moment. We talk about, be here now. We have to enjoy the challenge of this game at Xavier."

When they hosted the Musketeers on Feb. 3, the Wildcats won 81-58 behind James Bell’s 27 points. After leading by six at halftime, Villanova scored 53 in the final 20 minutes to cruise to victory.

Xavier (20-10, 10-7) could use a big win to improve its NCAA tournament resume. The team is 1-2 in games versus Top 25 opponents, thought it did beat then-No. 9 Creighton 75-69 on Saturday.

To pull the upset versus the Wildcats, the team will need to overcome the loss of one of its top players. Center Matt Stainbrook, second in the Big East with 7.8 rebounds per game, sprained his MCL in Monday’s 71-62 loss to Seton Hall. The injury is not as bad as the team initially feared, as the junior will not need surgery.

"It was definitely a relief," teammate Isaiah Philmore said. "At the same time, we don’t know when (Matt’s) going to be coming back. It would have been better if we found out there was nothing really wrong. I’m happy he doesn’t need surgery, that’s for sure."

Taking Stainbrook’s role in the offense will be freshman forward Jalen Reynolds. Though he has yet to start a game, Reynolds has played during some key stretches for Xavier, especially recently.

Over his last three games, Reynolds is averaging 8.3 points and 9.3 rebounds.

"The good thing is Jalen has played very well here of late," coach Chris Mack said. "He’s not going to have the experience that Matt brings to the table, but he’s more athletic, he rebounds every bit as well as Matt does and we feel he’s a capable scorer as evidenced by a few games he’s had this season."

Reynolds and the rest of the Musketeers could have trouble scoring against Villanova, which has held opponents to averages of 59.3 points and 36.0 percent shooting during its current four-game win streak.

The Wildcats lead the all-time series 17-4 but haven’t played at Xavier since a 79-74 win March 4, 1974.