Villanova entered last season’s Big East tournament with the same 13-5 conference record it brings to Madison Square Garden this week, but a recent slump has cast some doubt on whether another Final Four run is possible.
Marquette, on the other hand, couldn’t be feeling much better.
The 10th-ranked Wildcats’ postseason run a year ago began with a thrilling win over the Golden Eagles, and Marquette’s penchant for tight finishes seems to indicate another could be on tap in Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinal.
Villanova (24-6) came to MSG a year ago having won 11 of its last 13 conference games, but coach Jay Wright’s team has little momentum now. The Wildcats opened the season 20-1 overall and 9-0 in the Big East, but went 4-5 down the stretch.
They’ve dropped four of six, including a 68-66 overtime loss Saturday against then-No. 10 West Virginia. All six of Villanova’s losses this season have come against teams that have been ranked at some point - one reason Wright isn’t overly concerned.
“We are getting better even though it doesn’t show sometimes in wins and losses,” Wright said. “We’re getting better defensively, we’re getting a little bit better rebounding-wise. And we just played better teams at the end of the schedule.”
Four-year starting guard Scottie Reynolds carried the Wildcats to the Final Four last season and remains one of the nation’s most dangerous scorers, but Villanova needs more from its No. 2 option. Backcourt mate Corey Fisher averaged 11.5 points and shot 37.7 percent over the 2-4 closing stretch - nearly three points and 10 percent lower than his averages from the first 24 games.
Reynolds has averaged 21.5 points in his last four games against Marquette (21-10) - all Villanova wins. He had 21 points, eight boards and four steals in the Wildcats’ 2009 Big East quarterfinal game against the Golden Eagles, but Villanova needed a buzzer-beating layup from Dwayne Anderson to escape with a 76-75 victory.
Reynolds again led the way in two exciting victories over Marquette in early January. He had 23 in a 74-72 win in Milwaukee on Jan. 2, then scored 15 eight days later in Philadelphia as the Wildcats prevailed 78-76.
The Golden Eagles have consistently played to the level of their competition. Eleven of their 18 regular-season conference games were decided by three points or fewer, and four of the final five went to overtime.
Given that track record, it was no surprise when Marquette’s second-round game against St. John’s on Wednesday came down to the wire. The Golden Eagles blew all of a 14-point second-half lead, but Lazar Hayward had 20 points and nine rebounds and made a key defensive stop to help seal a 57-55 victory.
Marquette has won 10 of its last 12 against conference rivals after starting 2-5.
“Everything has changed,” coach Buzz Williams said. “The whole deal is this, our margin of error has never changed.
“The games that we lost, the lessons we learned, are just as important as the games we won by one or two possessions as well.”
The Golden Eagles hit 10 of 18 3-pointers and shot 52.5 percent overall against St. John’s. Marquette is 16-0 when it shoots 45 percent or better.
Reynolds hasn’t been nearly that accurate in the Big East tournament, where Villanova’s star is a career 34.2 percent shooter. He had two points in the Wildcats’ semifinal loss to Louisville last season.
Williams isn’t counting on similar struggles Thursday.
“We’ll have our hands full,” he said. “… You just saw how hard we had to play to escape, so we’ll have a lot to do over the next 22 hours to get prepared.”