In sixth place in the Big East, Villanova trails four teams ranked in the top eight in the AP poll. Unexpectedly, it’s also chasing unranked Providence.
The No. 17 Wildcats look to continue to climb in their highly competitive conference and win their fourth straight game Wednesday when they visit the Friars, who are trying to bounce back from a lopsided loss.
Eighth-ranked Marquette, No. 1 Connecticut, No. 5 Louisville and sixth-ranked Pittsburgh are the top four teams in the Big East, but the fifth-place team has been quite a surprise. Providence (14-7, 6-3) - the league’s only unranked team that has a winning conference record - remains ahead of Villanova (17-4, 5-3).
That could change Tuesday, as the Friars have had trouble beating the Wildcats lately, losing five straight in the series since a 100-74 victory Feb. 11, 2004. Villanova won 73-63 at Providence on March 8, its third victory in a row on the Friars’ home floor.
The Wildcats defeated Cincinnati 71-50 on Sunday with another stellar defensive performance. Villanova, which was coming off last Wednesday’s 67-57 win over then-No. 3 Pitt, held the Bearcats to 28.8 percent shooting - its best effort of the season.
The Wildcats are limiting opponents to an average of 56.0 points on 34.9 percent shooting during their three-game win streak, and are 11-0 when holding opponents to 60 points or fewer.
“We have five guys on the floor most times that are all playing off of each other and reading each other defensively,” coach Jay Wright said.
Dante Cunningham scored 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds for Villanova. Cunningham, who leads the Wildcats with 16.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, has made 20 of 33 shots from the field in the last three games.
“He is the rock for us,” Wright said.
Cunningham has helped carry Villanova offensively as Scottie Reynolds’ shooting woes have continued.
Reynolds finished with 11 points on 2-of-8 from the floor Saturday. The mercurial junior is averaging 10.3 points on 36.2 percent shooting in six games since scoring a season-high 40 points - his second career 40-point game - in an 89-85 overtime win against Seton Hall on Jan. 6.
Reynolds, averaging 14.3 points on the season, had 10 on 3-of-8 shooting in the March win over the Friars. Cunningham managed just seven points on 2-of-8 from the field in that contest.
Providence lost to then-No. 2 UConn 94-61 on Saturday, snapping its three-game winning streak.
The Friars, who were coming off last Wednesday’s 100-94 victory over then-No. 15 Syracuse, trailed the Huskies by four at the break before getting outscored 56-27 over the final 20 minutes.
Providence shot 5-of-19 from 3-point range after shooting 39.7 percent from beyond the arc in its previous six contests. The Friars, who averaged 82.4 points during that span, could struggle from long range again Wednesday with Villanova limiting opponents to 26.1 percent on 3s over the last three games.
“We’re not a team that can rely on one part of our game,” first-year Providence coach Keno Davis said. “If a team’s going to come out and take away 3-point shots, we’ve got to be able to drive and get to the free-throw line.”
Weyinmi Efejuku, averaging a team-high 13.0 points, finished with seven on 3-of-9 shooting against UConn before fouling out with 7:40 left. He had 14 points, seven rebounds and five steals in last season’s loss to Villanova.
Providence has won 11 of its last 12 at home, the only defeat in that span coming by a 91-82 score to then-No. 14 Marquette on Jan. 17.