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Pittsburgh poised to clinch the Big East title
The 19th-ranked Wildcats (21-9, 9-8) were picked second in the Big East. But they’ll likely be lumped with traditional also-rans like Seton Hall and DePaul in the first round of the conference tournament on Tuesday. The Wildcats’ freefall from 16-1 to the worst ranked team in the poll was impossible for coach Jay Wright to imagine weeks ago.
Villanova has lost three straight games and five of seven overall. Corey Stokes missed time with turf toe and Corey Fisher is battling severe tendinitis in his right knee. The back-end of the schedule was stuffed with Top 25 teams, and a roster with little depth simply didn’t improve down the stretch.
“I realize what we’ve done,” Wright said, “the opportunities that we’ve lost.”
The hits keep coming for the Wildcats. Assistant coach Jason Donnelly was forced into practice this week, and walk-on Dallas Ouano dislocated his knee.
Wright takes the blame with the rest of the staff for not having the Wildcats ready down the stretch. This is the second straight season that Villanova has collapsed in the final weeks, and they were eliminated last year in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Wright is optimistic, though, that the Wildcats can spark their season with a win over Pitt. But for a coach who stresses the Big East regular season as the true barometer of the state of the program, this season has not been a success.
“In terms of being the best team we could at the end of the year, I don’t think so,” he said. “But the year’s not over. We would have expected to be in a better position. You can’t argue that.”
The worst loss came Monday night, a 93-72 beating at Notre Dame. Ben Hansbrough hit seven of Notre Dame’s school-record 20 3-pointers and the Irish led by as many as 32 points.
Wright scrapped practice the next day and held a team meeting where the Wildcats, “talked about the reality of going out there and getting our butts kicked.”
For the first time this season, Wright admitted concern over his players’ mental state. Losing takes a toll and blowouts are even worse. Toss in the Big East title aspirations that faded away, and only a deep run in the NCAA tournament could erase the memories of the past month.
Beating Pitt, of course, would ease those confidence concerns. But it won’t be easy.
“They might not have the marquee players,” Wright said, “but this is the best Pitt team we’ve ever played against.”
By David Keene
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