NEW YORK – The Big East tournament is here, but are the defending champions ready?
Entering the event at Madison Square Garden having relinquished the No. 1 seed for the first time in the five seasons of the reconfigured conference, Villanova hasn't been its typical consistent self for stretches this season because of injuries and inexperience.
The injured players – starters Phil Booth (broken hand) and Eric Paschall (concussion symptoms) as well as freshman reserves Collin Gillespie (fractured wrist) and Jermaine Samuels (broken hand) – missed a total of 27 games. The second-ranked Wildcats went 18 straight contests, plus however many practices over those 11 weeks, without having a full complement of players.
The Cats finally had a full bench for the Feb. 21 game against DePaul and won three of their last four in the regular season to finish 27-4, just one more defeat that they experienced in the 2016-17 regular season.
However, as he prepares his team for its opening game Thursday night against either Marquette or DePaul, coach Jay Wright worries about the group's communication, consistency, and chemistry, especially at the defensive end.
"The area where we want to improve is our connectedness," Wright said. "I think it's one of the things we struggled with, with our injuries — not necessarily the talent — just not having Phil in there for a while, not having Gillespie in there for a while, guys not playing together, not having Eric in there for a while, not playing together defensively where we develop a trust and a collective mind-set.
"So we need to keep playing games, man. We need to keep playing games so we can get practices and game experiences together."
The Wildcats did a better job of being connected in the last two games, limiting Seton Hall and Georgetown to 40.5 percent shooting and 8 for 42 on three-pointers. Offensively, they tied a season high with 25 assists against the Hoyas and shot 57.4 percent Saturday in a 97-73 win.
Jalen Brunson, named Wednesday as the Big East player of the year, said he "liked how together we were" against Georgetown.
"Everyone was feeding off each other," he said. "Everyone was sharing the ball, everyone was playing together, and it was fun. That's how every game should be for us. We should be sharing the ball even when we're not making shots, still trusting each other and things like that. But it's fun to make shots, definitely."
The shots might be challenged more at tournament time. Wright feels the league's depth and balance are better than ever, top to bottom, and that "you know you could get beat at any time in this tournament."
The plan for the Wildcats is to repeat as champions. But four freshmen – Gillespie, Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Big East freshman of the year Omari Spellman – are among the first nine players. The team philosophy is treating tournament games like any other game but sometimes it's not that easy.
Wright thinks they're making progress, and hopes it continues.