Villanova fended off Marquette for the Big East’s fourth seed and a double-bye in the conference tournament, meaning the Golden Eagles had to win just to get to the quarterfinals while the Wildcats could sit back and wait for their opponent.
Marquette, however, didn’t have to work very hard to join them.
Coming off one of their most lopsided conference wins of the season, the No. 21 Golden Eagles will try to take down the team that handed them their largest league loss as they face 10th-ranked Villanova on Thursday afternoon in the quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.
Marquette (24-8) looked like it would breeze into one of the top four slots in the Big East tournament as of late February, but a season-ending injury to point guard Dominic James helped derail those plans.
The Golden Eagles lost 93-82 to Connecticut on Feb. 25 - the game in which James suffered a broken bone in his foot - and proceeded to drop their final three regular-season contests as well.
Instead of continuing to slide, though, fifth-seeded Marquette came out on fire in the second round Wednesday. The Golden Eagles limited St. John’s to 10 first-half points and cruised to a 74-45 victory, snapping their four-game slide.
“Obviously when we’re able to get consecutive stops we’re able score much better playing downhill than taking it out of the net,” coach Buzz Williams said. “In general, we were much better defensively.”
While the 29-point win was Marquette’s second-widest margin of victory in the league this season, Villanova (25-6) handed Williams’ team its most lopsided loss Feb. 10 in Philadelphia.
Scottie Reynolds had a game-high 27 points - hitting five 3-pointers - as the Wildcats poured in a season high-tying 13 shots from beyond the arc in a 102-84 win.
“We’ll have our hands full,” Williams said. “They absolutely whipped us, more so than any other team in our league.”
Reynolds, though, wasn’t nearly as successful when Villanova traveled to Milwaukee on New Year’s Day. The junior guard had 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting and committed four turnovers before fouling out in a 79-72 loss.
Senior forward Dante Cunningham leads the Wildcats with 16.4 points per game, but Reynolds is unquestionably the team’s most important player. The Wildcats are 11-0 when he scores at least 18.
Reynolds did even more than that in Villanova’s last two regular-season games. He went 6-of-7 from 3-point range and scored 23 in a 77-60 victory at Notre Dame on March 2, then shot 5-of-9 from beyond the arc while again going for 23 in a 97-80 home win over Providence last Thursday that clinched the double-bye.
Not that Jay Wright, named the Big East coach of the year this week for the second time, had his team focused on earning an extra day of rest.
“We don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it,” Wright said. “What happens in the Big East tournament, what happens in the NCAA tournament, there’s so many matchups and things that affect that.”
The most critical matchup Thursday will likely be how well Villanova’s guards can defend Marquette’s terrific backcourt. James is gone, but All-Big East first-teamer Jerel McNeal and fellow senior Wesley Matthews average a combined 38.6 points.
While McNeal and Matthews are the league’s top-scoring tandem, Marquette gets virtually nothing from its bench. The Golden Eagles’ reserves score 10.9 points per game, which ranks them near the bottom in the 343-team Division I.
Villanova’s bench averages 19.3 points, led by Corey Fisher’s 10.8. The sophomore guard averaged 7.0 points on 22.7 percent shooting in the Wildcats’ last three games but thrived against Marquette, scoring 21 in each meeting.
The winner will face either top-seeded Louisville or eighth-seeded Providence in Friday night’s semifinals.