Prior to the season, it wouldn’t have been hard to envision Villanova, fresh off a Final Four appearance and returning a loaded roster, playing in one of the nation’s biggest regular-season games.
Few would have pictured then-unranked Syracuse as the opponent.
First place in the Big East is the prize for the winner of Saturday night’s showdown at the Carrier Dome, where the fourth-ranked Orange can clinch the regular-season conference title if they can knock off the No. 7 Wildcats in front of the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history.
The return of Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher made Villanova (22-4, 12-3) a preseason top-five team and a Final Four favorite, while four other Big East clubs joined coach Jay Wright’s group in the Top 25.
Syracuse was not one of them, and suffered a preseason loss to crosstown neighbor Le Moyne, a Division II program.
That was not a sign of things to come for the Orange (26-2, 13-2), who are now one win away from setting the school’s all-time regular-season record. Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson (team-high 15.8 points per game) carried Jim Boeheim’s club to a 13-0 start, and during Syracuse’s last five games senior guard Andy Rautins (18.8 points, 21 of 42 from 3-point range) has emerged as the catalyst.
Rautins scored a season-high 28 points Tuesday at Providence, hitting 8 of 12 from 3-point range. He and junior forward Rick Jackson (28 points) led the Orange back from a five-point halftime deficit and to a 99-85 win.
“I think we did a good job playing Providence, but I think we’ve got to play better (against) ‘Nova,” Jackson said. “I think guys are just looking forward to playing ‘Nova, but we realized that we had to come in here and handle business. We’re going to go in there pumped on Saturday, and it’s just going to be an outright fight.”
With the win over the Friars, Syracuse clinched a double-bye in the Big East tournament. A victory against Villanova would give the Orange their first regular-season championship since 2003, and would lock up the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament.
The 2002-03 season ended with Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara leading Syracuse to its first national championship.
“We’re just glad we’re not on the bubble for the eighth year in a row,” Boeheim said. “I think we can still get better as we go through these last two weeks of the regular season.”
McNamara’s final collegiate game at the Carrier Dome in 2006 set the NCAA on-campus attendance record (33,633), a mark which will be eclipsed Saturday, when a crowd of 34,616 is expected for the sixth meeting between two top-10 Big East opponents this season.
Either Syracuse or Villanova has been involved in all of them, with the Orange going 3-0 and the Wildcats 1-1 in those contests.
Villanova dropped three of five after climbing to No. 2 in the AP Poll earlier this month, but ended that stretch and avoided a three-game losing streak Wednesday with a 74-49 home victory over South Florida. Reynolds scored 21 points one night after he and fellow senior Reggie Redding organized a team meeting.
“I told them it needed to be done,” Wright said. “I told them we’ve talked enough. They’ve been doing it all year, so it’s not been anything different.
“I feel like we’re playing good basketball again.”
Reynolds was held to 10 points each time in two meetings last season with Syracuse. Villanova shot above 50 percent in winning both, though, including an 89-86 victory in upstate New York on Feb. 22, 2009 - the Wildcats’ second straight win at the Carrier Dome.
Points should again be plentiful Saturday for two teams that rank among the nation’s top seven in scoring average.
Syracuse also leads Division I in field-goal percentage (52.2), an excellent omen heading into March. The major conference leader in that category has won four of the last five NCAA championships.