PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Villanova Wildcats have enjoyed an unprecedented level of success over the last five years under head coach Jay Wright. In addition to the two national titles, the Wildcats have won a share of the Big East regular season or conference championship in each of those seasons.
This year, the streak of Big East championships may not continue. Currently, the Wildcats find themselves trailing Kevin Willard’s Seton Hall Pirates by one game in the conference standings. Like Villanova, Seton Hall dropped their conference matchup over the weekend, ending a long winning streak (10 games for Pirates, seven for Wildcats). The Wildcats and Pirates will meet this coming Saturday for the first time this season, and CBS Sports college basketball insider Gary Parrish notes that the Pirates are fully capable of ending Nova’s streak.
“There are some computers right now that project Seton Hall to be outright champs. They’re really terrific. They’re led by Myles Powell, who is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate,” said Parrish. “But one of the interesting things that is happening this season is [that] they have a 7-foot-2 center named Romaro Gill, who has gone from a bit player to one of the best bigs in the Big East. He is a difference maker on both ends of the court.”
Gill’s impact on the offensive end is mostly as a finisher around the rim (7.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG), but defensively he makes a massive impact, averaging 3.4 blocks per game. Parrish says that opposing coaches have gotten to the point where they tell their teams to avoid going directly at Gill at all costs.
“I was talking to Steve Wojciechowski, the Marquette coach, recently, just before they were playing Seton Hall, and he told me that he told his players, ‘We drive to kick it out. We’re not driving to score at the rim because we can’t. So let’s drive and kick rather than drive and score at the rim,'” said Parrish. “So when you have coaches already conceding that we can’t score on you at the rim, that is one of those things that will make you an incredible defensive team.”
The numbers bear that out, with Seton Hall ranking just outside the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. However, that defense may have taken a big hit in the team’s loss to Xavier when guard Quincy McKnight went down with a leg injury. The extent and severity of McKnight’s injury is unknown, but he was the Pirates’ second-leading scorer and a menace on the defensive end, averaging 1.8 steals per game.
McKnight missing significant time would certainly ding Seton Hall’s chances of knocking Villanova from their perch atop the Big East. That would be a difficult enough task as is because, as Parrish notes, this year’s Wildcats team is still pretty strong. While it may not be up to the level of the two national title-winning teams, they’re still plenty good enough in his estimation to be in the conversation for a title in this particular year.
“I don’t think this team is as good as either of his national championship teams, but for the reasons we have already discussed, I do think it’s good enough to win another championship in this particular year, because sometimes people make the mistake of trying to figure out what a national champion looks like by comparing it to other national championship teams,” said Parrish. “But, you don’t have to beat 2019 Virginia to win the title in 2020. You don’t have to beat 2012 Kentucky to win the tournament in 2020. You just have to beat all the teams in 2020. And the teams who we think are the best, they’re not as good as the best teams normally are. So Villanova can reasonably win a national championship if this is the third-best team that Jay Wright has had in recent years.”
The Wildcats’ strength lies in their offensive execution. While they play at one of the slower paces in the country (276th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo), they execute at a top-20 efficiency level. The balanced attack sees five players averaging double figures led by Collin Gillespie and Saddiq Bey. One of the bigger differences with this year’s team is the lack of depth when compared with previous iterations. In each of the two national title runs, Wright could reliably run out eight to nine guys in his rotation. This year, just seven players are averaging 10-plus minutes per game, leaving the team in a bit of a pickle if one of the starters gets in foul trouble.
How they match up on the floor with Seton Hall will be determined this weekend, as the two meet for the first time on Saturday. As Parrish points out, the Pirates are more than capable of ending the Wildcats’ streak of Big East titles.
“The outcomes could be what determines the champion of the Big East,” said Parrish. “But, can Seton Hall end Villanova’s streak of Big East regular-season titles? Yes they can. Not sure that they will, but they definitely look the part.”
The No. 10 Wildcats meet the 12th-ranked Pirates on Saturday with tip set for 2:30 p.m. ET from the Wells Fargo Center.