NCAA tournament: Three Villanova storylines to watch as Wildcats begin Big East tournament

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Sean Kane
·5 min read
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Three Villanova storylines as Wildcats begin Big East tourney originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Next man up.

You hear it all the time in sports, college basketball included. A team loses a player to injury and they adopt the 'next man up' mantra, believing (or sometimes hoping) that another player can fill the void.

Villanova's belief in that mantra is being tested. When Collin Gillespie went down with a season-ending knee injury last week, Justin Moore was the next man up. Then Moore sprained his ankle in the Wildcats' next game and is doubtful for this week's Big East Tournament.

A week ago, Villanova was considered a legitimate national championship contender poised for big things in March. Now they head to Madison Square Garden without their two best guards, trying to patch together a lineup capable of winning three games in three days against teams fighting for their postseason lives.

It's unfortunate any way you look at it. The players sacrificed so much just to play this season during a pandemic. They finally make it to March and boom... they lose their starting backcourt in the span of four days.

But Jay Wright isn't feeling sorry for himself as the Wildcats embark on what is usually the most exciting part of the season.

"We've been very, very fortunate," Wright said Tuesday. "You look at the runs we made in the NCAA Tournament (in 2016 and 2018), we kept everybody healthy through all those runs, which is rare... So this is our turn, we get it. We're going to battle through it.

"It's definitely a weird vibe, being in practice today and having Collin and Justin on crutches, it's just weird. But it definitely does not temper the excitement (of the postseason). We are fired up about it, the young guys want the opportunity. Let's see what we can do, we've had a couple good days of practice, let's see if we can keep getting better here."

Can the shorthanded Wildcats defy the odds and win a fourth straight Big East Tournament title? Here are three storylines to monitor this week.

ROAD ATTITUDE

This has been a hallmark of the Villanova program since Wright became head coach 20 years ago. The Wildcats pride themselves on sticking together on the road when everything is stacked against them. It's an 'us against the world' mentality that has served them well during this unprecedented run of success they've enjoyed the last eight years.

But it didn't translate to this season, when it was seemingly easier to win on the road with either no fans or a limited number of fans in the stands. Villanova lost their last four road games by an average of more than 10 points.

Wright points to the overall strangeness of this season as a potential reason the Wildcats failed to develop what he calls a 'vicious' attitude on the road. Fortunately, Villanova won't play any more road games. But they'll be away from home playing neutral court games the rest of the season. They need to figure out how to win outside the cozy confines of Finneran Pavilion, and they need to do it in a hurry.

CHRIS ARCIDIACONO AS NICK FOLES?

Arcidiacono is no stranger to following in big footsteps. His older brother Ryan is one of the best players in Villanova history, the driving force behind the Wildcats' 2016 national championship. Now the younger Arcidiacono is trying to replace Gillespie and Moore at the point guard position at the most critical point of the season.

But this week we'll see if Arcidiacono can follow Nick Foles' lead. It's an odd comparison on the surface but it makes sense if you dig a little deeper. Foles stepped up after the Eagles' star player went down with an injury at the end of the season and proceeded to lead his team to postseason glory. Arcidiacono, a seldom-used reserve most of the season like Foles was in 2017, gets his chance to do the same while operating as the quarterback of Villanova's offense.

It may seem like a long shot, but most people said the same thing about the Eagles' chances of winning a championship when Foles took over for Carson Wentz four years ago.

JRE'S TIME TO SHINE

The Big East announced today that three players will share the conference's Player of the Year award. The trio includes a pair of Villanova players, Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, as well as Seton Hall's Sandro Mamukelashvili.

It's a big honor for Robinson-Earl, who also picked up a third team All-American selection earlier this week from the Sporting News. Robinson-Earl's sophomore season has been very good. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding and steals. He's one of the best defensive players in the country and has shown glimpses of dominating on the offensive end as well.

But Villanova needs him to assert himself offensively on a regular basis for the remainder of the season. Robinson-Earl scored 11 points on 5 of 15 shooting in last Saturday's loss at Providence, struggling to make open perimeter jumpers and finish around the basket.

If Villanova has any shot of cutting down the nets Saturday night at MSG, Robinson-Earl will have to set the tone and establish himself as the best player on the floor.