Considering the Big East Conference schedule has just begun, it would have been ridiculous to put a “must-win” label on No. 10 Xavier in its game Wednesday at top-ranked Villanova.
The teams aren’t even halfway through the first round of home-and-homes, meaning there are plenty of games left to make up for an early stumble.
There is, however, that little issue that Villanova hasn’t lost more than three Big East games since the conference realigned to its current 10-team format in 2013-14.
Perceptions of deficits can get a bit out of line under conditions like that.
“It’s a long conference season,” Xavier coach Chris Mack had said going into the game. “It’s not going to be decided in six to eight games. There are 18 conference games.
“They all count the same, but when you’re playing the defending champion going on four years now, you know that they’re going to be in the thick of it, if not at the top.”
Well, despite having just one conference loss, the Wildcats still aren’t currently at the top of the Big East. Having played one fewer game than Creighton, the Cats are still a half-game out of first place after beating Xavier, 89-65, at the Wells Fargo Center.
Paced by Phil Booth, who scored a career-high 21 points, and getting 17 points from Jalen Brunson, Villanova (15-1, 3-1 Big East) beat Xavier for the third straight time and ninth time in 10 Big East encounters.
After riding a 10-game winning streak, the Musketeers (15-3, 3-2) have now lost consecutive games.
Whatever juice Xavier came in with to play the No.1 team, Villanova quickly drained it out.
Booth hit a three-pointer for the opening basket and the Cats were off and running. ‘Nova was quickly up by double-digits and Xavier was in the unenviable position of trying to chase down a team that had scored at least 90 points in its four previous games.
That wasn’t going to happen – especially on a night when the Wildcats remained focused on their defensive concepts once they established a big lead.
This wasn’t like the game on Saturday against Marquette when Villanova let things get interesting in the second half.
After an 18-10 run put the Cats up by 20 five minutes into the second half, they remained relentless.
Xavier, which came in averaging 85.6 points a game, never got closer than within 15 points.
“When we were having trouble on defense, we didn’t focus on the young players in practice,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We went to the older players because they were going to have to show them how. They did a great job of that tonight.”
Harassed by up-close-and-personal defense from Mikal Bridges, Musketeers All-America candidate Trevon Bluiett was held to 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
In the first half when Villanova took control of the game, Bluiett, who averaged 19.4 points, scored only five.
While Bridges also scored just five points in the first half, Villanova had plenty of other scoring options.
By the end, Bridges finished with 15 points to join Booth, Brunson, Eric Paschall (14 points) and Donte DiVincenzo (11) as double-digit scorers.