Big East favorite Villanova perfect entering conference play

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Jay Wright is no different from the thousands of die-hard fans in the Philadelphia area.

The Villanova coach loves the Eagles, and cheers for all the city's sports teams. After all, this is a coach with roots so deep in the area he once worked for Philadelphia's USFL franchise.

But Wright had at least one more motive for hoping the Eagles could make a postseason run.

"You root for them because you love them, it's your team," he said. "But you also know, it keeps everybody's attention for a long time. It's nice, you get to coach your team early in the year and there's not a lot of distractions."

Now, the Eagles are finished (even at 10-6). The Flyers are sagging along the NHL. The 76ers? Check back in 2018, maybe.

It's time for Philadelphia fans to turn the page on the pro scene and find out what the rest of the college basketball world has known all season: Wright has one of his best teams yet on the Main Line and a Final Four berth as a realistic goal.

The Big East-favorite Wildcats are 12-0 and No. 6 in the AP Top 25 poll as they head into Wednesday's conference opener against Butler. They've blown out teams, knocked off ranked teams and gutted out improbable comeback victories, the kind of nonconference resume that has them ready for a rugged Big East schedule.

In the 30th anniversary season of Villanova's lone national championship, the Wildcats are thinking off adding a second trophy to the collection.

Just ask guard Josh Hart.

After the Wildcats scored five straight points in the final 11 seconds of regulation to tie Syracuse, then win in overtime, Hart casually mentioned how those kind of games could help the Wildcats late in the season. Real late.

"We need these kind of games to get us prepared for conference play, to get us prepared for April," he said.

Yes, April. And the only games played in April this season come over a little weekend dubbed the Final Four.

Is Wright happy the Wildcats are talking about playing for a national championship already?

"Yes," Wright said, without hesitation. "We have a saying in our program that we practice to create habits that are going to make us successful in the most difficult situations. We say that every day. Twenty times a day."

But tossing out April predictions in the heart of the winter may be a bit of a stretch.

"I don't really agree with that," Wright said, "but I respect his approach. He always says that. I've never addressed it, ever. I always let him say that. I know it comes from the heart."

The Wildcats are winning with a hearty dose of team ball. Darrun Hilliard is their leading scorer at just 12.6 points-per-game and it took 10 games until a player cracked 20 points in a game. JayVaughn Pinkston has won close games against Michigan and the Orange with buckets in the closing minutes. Dylan Ennis, and sophomores Kris Jenkins and Hart have so much talent that the Wildcats should keep rolling for years under Wright.

The only underachiever is junior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono (31 percent from floor/20 percent 3-point range/7.8 points). He showed signs of busting out of his season-long malaise with a nine assist-no turnover effort against Syracuse and a 16-point game on 6 of 12 shooting against NJIT.

"He's an economics major and he got his butt kicked this semester," Wright said. "He cares so much. It was just blowing his mind. He was working his butt off and not getting the results he's used to getting."

Wright, who has led the Wildcats to one Final Four (2009) in 14 seasons with the Wildcats, has a team getting the results expected as the unanimous choice by the coaches to win the Big East championship.

Villanova's 12-0 start is tied for second best in school history. The 1948-49 and 1961-62 teams each began the season with 12 straight victories.

The best start in program history came in 1937-38: Villanova won 13 in a row on its way to a 24-4 finish. The first loss came against Westminster College.

Villanova could get a challenge in conference play from fellow AP Top 25 teams St. John's (15) and Georgetown (25).

"When you're winning, it's hard to convince a team they have to keep getting better," Wright said. "That's really what I'm concerned about. You don't have to lose. When you lose, then it's easy."

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