Blue Demons aim to defang Villanova Wildcats



(AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

A date with the No. 3 ranked Villanova Wildcats is never an easy task.

But because the matchup between the DePaul Blue Demons (10-16; 3-11 Big East) and Villanova Wildcats (24-3; 11-3 Big East) is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia instead of at Wintrust Arena, DePaul may feel better about their chances.

With four games remaining on the regular-season slate, the Blue Demons are still searching for their first home win in the Big East Conference. They have won three away games in conference play (at Georgetown, at St. John’s, and at Providence), and will have two more opportunities to win at Wintrust on Feb. 24 against Marquette and on March 3 against Xavier.

But first they must contend with Villanova, a team that won its first 13 games of the season and had been ranked No.1 in the Associated Press and USA Today poll for eight weeks this season. However, the Wildcats have been a bit vulnerable in Big East play with losses to Butler, Providence, and a red-hot St. John’s team representing the only three blemishes on their record.

But don’t think that the Wildcats will overlook this Blue Demon team on Wednesday. Villanova is a half game out of first place in the Big East, with only one win less and the same amount of losses as the Xavier Musketeers (14-3 in conference). However, an emotional 95-79 win against then No. 4 ranked Xavier at home on Saturday gives the Wildcats the tiebreaker as Villanova also defeated the Musketeers earlier in the season.

Therefore, losing to DePaul wouldn’t be ideal for a Villanova squad searching for their fifth-consecutive Big East regular-season championship. In the first matchup between the two teams at Wintrust Arena on Dec. 27, Villanova prevailed comfortably 103-85. In that game, the Wildcats put seven players in double figures and shot 54.3 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from behind the 3-point stripe to post one of their four 100-plus point performances this season.

The game on Wednesday night will be the 33rd all-time meeting between the two teams with Villanova holding a 25-8 advantage in the series. Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao is 0-5 all time against Villanova. The game on Wednesday will be aired on Fox Sports 1 and WSCR 670 AM.

Unsurprisingly given their record, the Wildcats boast the most efficient offense in the country according to the prestigious Ken Pomeroy rankings. The Wildcats have five players right now who average in double figures; however, a late January injury to junior guard Phil Booth cut into an already alarmingly short Villanova rotation. In Booth’s absence, guard Collin Gillespie has assumed a larger workload, although he has averaged only 6.9 points per game since Booth went down with the injury.

Junior point guard Jalen Brunson remains the engine behind Villanova’s offensive machine. The Lincolnshire, Ill. native leads the team in scoring with 19.5 points per game this season while distributing 4.9 assists per game (fourth in the Big East). He also shoots the ball at a 53.7 percent clip from the field and a 42.7 percent clip from behind the 3-point line (both top eight marks in the Big East). Junior 3-and-D guard Mikal Bridges is a perfect complement to Brunson with his slashing ability (in addition to a 41.1 percent shooting percentage from 3-point land) and his elite defense using his rangy 6-foot-7-inch frame. He’s expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft this summer.

Freshman forward Omari Spellman has been a revelation for the Wildcats this season. At 6-foot-9 inches he can stretch the floor (44.9 percent from 3-point land on 3.3 attempts per game) while also doing his job on the glass with 7.6 rebounds per game. The Wildcats are a fairly small team in that their tallest guys are 6-foot-9-inches tall. However, they rebound well for their collective size, with the fourth-best rebounding margin (+2.4) in the Big East.

In the first matchup between the two teams, DePaul graduate senior center Marin Maric had 17 points and the Blue Demons outrebounded the Wildcats 50-32. Exploiting that size advantage could be key if the Blue Demons expect to have a chance on Wednesday night. Maric is playing his best basketball of the season and is coming off a 23 point, eight-rebound effort against Seton Hall on Saturday afternoon.

In their last three losses, the Blue Demons have fallen by an average of 2.3 points per game. Late-game execution has eluded them throughout the season, and to beat one of the best teams in the country in Villanova on Wednesday evening the Blue Demons will have to execute a nearly flawless game plan.