The young Villanova Wildcats will battle No. 1 Kansas for the second consecutive season when the two teams face off Saturday in Philadelphia.
No. 18 Villanova (8-2) enters the matchup with a four-game winning streak. In the Wildcats’ most recent game, they held off feisty Delaware 78-70 in the Never Forget Tribute Classic last Saturday in Newark, N.J.
Villanova placed five players in double figures led by Jermaine Samuels with 18, Justin Moore with 16 and Saddiq Bey with 13.
For the first time since 2002-03, head coach Jay Wright is starting two freshmen — Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Moore just won Big East Freshman of the Week honors for the third time already this season.
Last season, Kansas knocked off senior-laden Villanova 74-71 in Lawrence, Kan. Then-Wildcats forward Eric Paschall is now playing for the Golden State Warriors, and Villanova is also without guard Phil Booth’s leadership. This year’s version is much different, with a different player stepping up each game.
“It does boost their morale,” Wright told reporters of the team’s balanced offense. “Guys like to score. That’s one of the things we like to teach a young team — don’t evaluate yourselves on whether you score. So when five guys score, they’re all happy. Guys like to score. It’s a normal human characteristic. They’re feeling good right now.”
Villanova is 4-4 all-time against the Jayhawks, but this might be the stiffest test for the Wildcats because of their youth across the board.
“We’re an inexperienced team, and sometimes we don’t mix it up enough,” Wright said. “We get 3-(pointer) happy or get too focused on drives.”
Bey, a sophomore, has provided leadership along with junior guard Collin Gillespie. Each game has been a learning experience — win or lose.
“That’s what these games teach us — what we need to get better at,” Bey said. “We don’t want to get too high or too low.”
Meanwhile, Kansas has responded with nine consecutive victories following a season-opening two-point loss to Duke — a loss that included an uncharacteristic 28 turnovers.
The Jayhawks, back at No. 1, have been ranked No. 5 or higher in every poll in 2019-20, opening the season at No. 3.
“Certainly, we’ll welcome being ranked No. 1,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I don’t believe that any team out there is deserving, at this juncture, of separating themselves to earn that. But based on where we started and how we’ve played the last nine games, I do believe my guys deserve to be ranked high.”
Kansas has been off since a convincing 98-57 win over Missouri-Kansas City last Saturday. Sophomore forward David McCormack scored a career-high 28 points while Devon Dotson added 18 and Marcus Garrett had 13.
The balanced Jayhawks are as deep as they’ve been in recent years.
“We’re a very versatile team,” Dotson said. “(On) any given night, it can be somebody’s game. We’re very deep, so it can show how much potential we have. We just got to keep it going, lock in each and every game and practice.”
Self understands how difficult a challenge it will be to travel to Philadelphia and face the Wildcats.
“We are going to give Villanova three intense days of practice even though they will be an hour-and-a-half long, probably each one of them, not long because of finals,” Self said. “This is the most important week of the year so far; it’s finals week and we are, of course, going to be concerned with ‘Nova, but we have to handle business in the classroom first.”
–Field Level Media