NEW YORK – There are showdowns and then there are bona fide circle-the-date games on the schedule.
This one – No. 12 Gonzaga vs. No. 4 Villanova in the opener of the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader Tuesday at Madison Square Garden – qualifies on both accounts. Former Big East rivals Syracuse and UConn meet in the nightcap.
It’s the biggest game on the Zags’ nonconference slate now that the PK80 has come and gone and a potential matchup with No. 1 Duke went by the wayside after Gonzaga’s double-overtime loss to then-No. 7 Florida.
It’s become the biggest test to date for the Wildcats, who are 8-0 but have yet to face a ranked opponent. Presumed dates with Purdue and Arizona vanished when those two stumbled badly at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Instead, Villanova took care of Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Iowa to win the tournament. The Volunteers climbed into the AP poll Monday at No. 24.
The Wildcats have barely been challenged, beating WKU by eight and Tennessee by nine. They’ve won their last two games by a combined 79 points.
“Obviously a great team, great program, unbelievable toughness and just resolve to win,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Their perimeter players with (Jalen) Brunson, it starts with him, and (coach) Jay (Wright) does a great job. He’s got them playing really hard. They’re really hard to score on.”
Adding to the challenge: Villanova’s campus is about 100 miles from New York City.
“This isn’t going to be a neutral (court game),” Few said.
The Wildcats have won four consecutive outright Big East regular season championships, a conference record, while compiling a 63-9 record. They’re heavily favored to make it five in a row.
Few said the Wildcats are a veteran team with balance and multiple options offensively. Villanova counterpart Jay Wright used roughly the same terms to describe the Zags.
“At every position they are operating at a high level,” Wright said. “They have depth and are probably as efficient an offensive team as we have played. It’s definitely going to be the best team we have played this year.
“It will be a great challenge for us. We’re psyched.”
Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson has elevated his scoring average from 14.7 points last season to 17.9 and bumped his assists from 4.1 to 4.5.
Mikal Bridges, a junior forward, the Wildcats’ only other returning full-time starter, has made an even bigger improvement. He matches Brunson’s 17.9 scoring average, up from 9.8 last year.
Guard Donte DiVincenzo, a 2017 Big East All-Freshman team selection, checks in at 11.4 points. Junior guard Phil Booth adds 11.1 points.
“They’re really tough, as in mentally tough and physically tough,” Gonzaga senior guard Silas Melson said of Villanova’s guard line. “They really get at you. We know those dudes are really solid. We’re going to come in as aggressive and confident as possible.”
The Wildcats have a pair of interior options in Eric Paschall, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound junior averaging 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman (9.0 points and a team-high 17 blocked shots). The 6-9, 245-pound Spellman was ranked No. 16 in ESPN.com’s Top 100.
“It’s a big challenge for us,” Zags sophomore forward Killian Tillie said. “We’re going to have to prove we’re one of the best teams in the country. It’s going to be a great game.”
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