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Jeff Eisenberg

Villanova suddenly has the look of a Big East title contender

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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If the Big East championship will be won by the team that proves it can win marquee games on the road, then consider Villanova's victory at Syracuse a big step toward the Wildcats establishing themselves as contenders.

Seventh-ranked Villanova shredded Syracuse's vaunted two-three zone, silenced a near-record Orange-clad crowd and avenged last season's memorable blowout loss at the Carrier Dome. Saturday's 83-72 victory was as impressive as any the Wildcats have posted since they clobbered UCLA and Duke during their 2009 NCAA tournament run.

Until Saturday, the Big East's six top 20 teams had protected their home courts the way the Byzantines defended Constantinople, amassing a perfect 20-0 record at home in conference play. The Wildcats managed to loosen that stranglehold thanks mostly to stout perimeter defense and an improbable outside shooting barrage.

Whereas Pittsburgh decimated Syracuse's zone with crisp passing and an emphasis on feeding the high post on Monday night, Villanova did it with 8 of 11 3-point shooting in the first half. That forced Syracuse to extend its zone and created driving lanes for the Wildcats' stable of quick guards, who sank floaters in the lane, fed the big men for easy buckets and generally kept Syracuse's fastbreak stuck in neutral.

Point guard Maalik Wayns did a credible Kemba Walker impersonation, scoring 21 points and hitting 3 of 7 3-pointers to force Syracuse's defenders to respect his often-suspect outside shot. Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes each had 16 apiece as Villanova combined to shoot 50 percent for the game.

For Syracuse, a lack of backcourt production was too much to overcome. Scoop Jardine shot 1 of 8 from the floor, Dion Waiters was 2 of 12 and the Orange committed 15 turnovers against Villanova's relentless ball pressure.

The Wildcats remain just a game behind Pittsburgh for first place in the Big East entering a manageable stretch in their schedule. With the only two road games in their next five games at Providence and Rutgers, look for the Wildcats to continue their current surge and remain in contention in the Big East deep into February.

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