Bull's-eye on Villanova-St. Joe's

Posted: December 06, 2013

EVERYONE knows a Villanova-Saint Joseph's basketball game doesn't need any extra anything.

But just in case, the Wildcats are ranked 14th and have yet to lose. Tomorrow they'll make the short bus ride down City Avenue to Hagan Arena to face the 4-3 Hawks. The first time they played there, two seasons ago, St. Joe's won by 16. Last December the Wildcats had to rally late to barely get by at the Pavilion, their fifth win in the last six meetings and seventh in the last nine. The other St. Joe win in that stretch was a 22-pointer at the Palestra in February 2008.

Hagan is intimate. It will be loud, and hostile. As it should be. So you were expecting maybe a welcome mat? There's a reason it's a homecourt advantage.

"I think it will be very rabid," said Phil Martelli. "But I don't think anything can be like the first time. But I think that there will be tremendous energy. One of the things we're going to talk to our team about is not playing to that noise, just playing to us being better."

In their last game at Hagan, on Nov. 16, the only reason the Hawks didn't beat Creighton is that Doug McDermott made a Player of the Year-type play at the end.

The Wildcats don't have any one guy. And they're far from a finished product. What they do best is play for each other. Ask Kansas.

"For me, growing up in Philadelphia, it's really an honor to be part of the game," said Jay Wright, who wasn't satisfied with the way his guys played in Wednesday's 77-54 home win over Penn. "I've been watching it since I was a kid. Once you get there, with the hype and all, it's something to be a part of.

"Two years ago, we weren't playing too well, and it seemed worse. It seemed tougher. And actually, they were very good. We had some rough games at the Palestra against them, too.

"I don't think it's possible for us to have a bigger bull's-eye against St. Joe's. It's such a great, heated rivalry, in a game way. Playing against them is wild in that place. There's not too many places like that left any more. They're right on top of you, right behind the bench. The Palestra is one of those places. So, you go from that to a smaller, more confined area."

It's not like the Pavilion is exactly the Wells Fargo Center, but his point is duly noted.

"It's fun," Wright continued. "There's a lot that comes with it. I think you get both sides, probably, with some negative, but generally it's fun. Once it starts, that's fun. And actually when it's over it's really nice. You know you wanted to kill each other, but there's mutual respect. That's as intense as it gets."

His junior swingman, Darrun Hilliard, grew up in Bethlehem. So he wasn't weaned on the Big 5. Or this series. But he was in Hagan 2 years ago, so he knows how challenging it's going to be.

"I just remember we got killed," he said. "The fans were on top of you. They were playing great, we weren't so good. It's probably one of the best rivalries in college basketball. I'm sure it'll be a great atmosphere again.

"We don't mind [the added pressure]. We've kind of been through it all. We've been the underdog against some top teams. We lost to Columbia last year [at home]. Now we're back in the Top 25. But we've been in their shoes. They're hungry. We've got to stay more hungry. I know it's going to be crazy.

"Their people are going to bring it."

And as Martelli said, once you get past that there is a game to play.

"It's a fascinating style in that [Villanova] really identify their strengths," he said. "And I think it's more identifying their strengths than identifying your weaknesses. I don't know if they have a pet play other than than I'm going to dribble the ball past you or at you and see how you handle it . . .

"They're tough-minded."

In that environment, is there really any other option?

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