Only one of these perennial powers will maintain their perfect record when the seventh-ranked Wildcats face the No. 24 Volunteers for the first time in 39 years Friday night in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden.
With a talented backcourt trio led by Corey Fisher (18.4 points, 4.0 assists per game), the Wildcats have averaged 80.4 points and outscored their opponents by an average margin of 25.2 points to open with five straight wins for a third consecutive season.
The Wildcats passed their first true test with an 82-70 win over UCLA in Wednesday’s semifinal.
Playing near his Bronx home, Fisher scored a career-high 26 points while backcourt mates Maalik Wayns had 19 and New Jersey product Corey Stokes added 16 as Villanova won its 17th straight game in November to improve to 13-12 at MSG under coach Jay Wright.
“One of our biggest concerns every time we play here, it’s the opponent and then it’s our New York guys being in the Garden,” Wright said. “They’re overexcited, they want to do well.”
Wright hopes to contain his players’ collective excitement when they face an even bigger challenge against Tennessee (4-0), which held off Virginia Commonwealth 77-72 on Wednesday.
Villanova and Tennessee have not met since the Wildcats’ 76-67 win Dec. 28, 1971.
With two starters back from last season’s 28-9 team that reached the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, the Vols have had to dig deep to avoid their first loss.
Overcoming a season-low 40.0-percent shooting effort against the Rams likely seemed easy compared to playing amidst the lingering distraction of the NCAA’s investigation of embattled coach Bruce Pearl for violating NCAA recruiting rules and misleading investigators.
The SEC announced that Pearl will miss the Vols’ first eight league games, in addition to school-imposed sanctions that included docking the coach’s pay $1.5 million over five years and banning him from off-campus recruiting for a year. The NCAA is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its own investigation in December and could hand down additional sanctions.
Through it all, Pearl’s team remains focused on basketball.
“These guys are so insulated about what’s going on off the floor,” Pearl said. “I’m so on them about basketball and preparation, there’s no time for that. We have work to do to be a good basketball team.”
While the Vols still have room for improvement, Villanova must try to contain highly-touted 6-foot-8 freshman Tobias Harris (16.0 ppg) and junior guard Scotty Hopson (15.3 ppg).
Hopson had 18 points with 11 rebounds, while Harris added 15 points and 6-10 Brian Williams pulled down 13 boards against VCU. The Vols held the Rams to 30.9 percent shooting and recorded a season-high 54 rebounds.
“They’ve got big, long, athletic players,” Wright said.
That means the Wildcats could use another big effort from 6-10 sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou, who had 13 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and three blocks versus UCLA.
After averaging 4.5 points and 3.7 boards in 21 games as a freshman, Yarou has averaged 10.0 and a team-high 9.2 rebounds this season.