NEW YORK -- Villanova withstood a second-half run by Providence to defeat the Friars 76-68 on Friday in the semifinals of the Big East tournament. The Wildcats advanced to the title game to face the winner of Xavier vs. Seton Hall.
This was Jay Wright’s fifth straight win in the conference tournament. He coached the Wildcats to the championship in 2014-15.
Do the Wildcats need to win Saturday to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? It depends what happens in other conference tournaments. The loser of the ACC tournament -- Virginia or North Carolina -- could be in some trouble, while Oklahoma will likely be out of the running for a top seed with a Big 12 tournament loss. Michigan State and Oregon could make a case with a tournament title, and Xavier’s profile would look mighty attractive if the Musketeers advance to the title game and knock off Villanova for the second time Saturday. Kansas, of course, is in very good shape for the No. 1 overall seed.
One thing is for certain: A loss Friday would have left Villanova in precarious position for a 1-seed.
Thanks to Villanova’s veterans, that’s not an issue. Kris Jenkins has come up big on back-to-back days. He scored 21 points against Providence, including an “I didn’t realize he could do that” reverse dunk along the baseline. Ryan Arcidiacono had 19 points and six assists Thursday against Georgetown and followed that with 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists Friday. Josh Hart struggled with foul trouble but scored nine points in the final 90 seconds to help clinch a victory.
That’s what separates the Wildcats from the other teams in this league: They have veterans who have been here before and know how to win. Villanova’s upperclassmen will be up for another test Saturday.
Daniel Ochefu comes off the bench again
Villanova’s starting center sprained his right ankle Tuesday in practice, missed Wednesday’s practice and didn’t start Thursday or Friday. Ochefu played 13 minutes Thursday and 15 Friday, though early foul trouble might have been a factor. He had some solid moments late in the second half: a finish through contact at the rim and a layup on which he sealed his man on the block.
With Ochefu sidelined for the majority of the first half, Darryl Reynolds gave Wright really good minutes once again. The only other player on the active roster taller than 6-foot-7, Reynolds had six points and eight rebounds to follow his nine rebounds Thursday night. When Ochefu missed three games earlier this season because of a concussion, Reynolds showed flashes, highlighted by a 19-point, 10-rebound performance against Providence.
Can Villanova make a big run in the NCAA tournament without a healthy Ochefu? That’s doubtful. He gives the Wildcats the size they’ll need to compete with the likes of North Carolina and Kansas, and his development in four seasons at Villanova has been extraordinary. But Reynolds has stepped up whenever he has been needed this season, and Wright has shown that he isn't afraid to depend on him in a big moment if Ochefu is limited by health or foul issues.
Providence short on weapons offensively
It’s not much of a secret that Providence has one of the best one-two punches in college basketball in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil. When both players are producing, the Friars can compete with anyone in the country. That wasn’t the case Friday. One night after scoring 38 points in a win over Butler, Bentil fouled out with 9:40 remaining with three points and six rebounds. Dunn had one point in the first half on 0-for-4 shooting and finished with nine points and six assists.
As he has been on many occasions this season, Rodney Bullock was the third option for Providence, but his 18-point effort was his fourth double-figure scoring performance in his past 10 games. Kyron Cartwright has been playing better down the stretch, and he hit a big 3-pointer late in the game to trim Villanova’s lead before finishing with 14 points. He has been an excellent complement to Dunn in the backcourt, but he isn't a player who is going to shoulder the scoring load. Providence had six players with at least seven points, but it’s hard to see anyone besides Bentil and Dunn being a consistent double-figure producer.
Bentil isn’t going to score 38 every night, and Dunn won’t be able to dominate as he did earlier in the season. Friars coach Ed Cooley knows he needs both players at their best in the NCAA tournament, or he needs Bullock and Cartwright to continue to step up.