Defending champ Villanova tips off postseason vs. Providence

Defending national champion Villanova begins the postseason defense of its crown Thursday against Providence in the Big East tournament quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

The No. 25 Wildcats (22-9) finished 3-5 in its final eight conference games, but thanks to a 10-0 start to league play -- and some help on the last day of the regular season -- -they still hung on to the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

"I'm a Philly guy," Villanova head coach Jay Wright recently told the media. "I love Philly and the Palestra. But at this time of year Madison Square Garden is the mecca. All the alumni are up there and it's been in the same place for over 30 years. It's a tradition. There's just no vibe like playing there in the Big East tournament."

Despite losing four players to the NBA from last season's team -- guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo along with forwards Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman -- the Wildcats maintained their conference dominance. The Wildcats are looking for their third national championship in the last four seasons.

"There's no other conference that is directly connected to a major city every year for the history of the conference," Wright said. "Plus, it's New York City. Every school has its alumni there. You can feel them getting fired up for the tournament. It's really a special experience and we value it every time we get to go."

Villanova lost its regular-season finale at Seton Hall on Saturday, 79-75. The loss put the Wildcats in jeopardy of missing out on its fifth outright regular-season conference title in six seasons, but Marquette's loss to Georgetown later Saturday gave Villanova the top seed again.

"There's a lot of history at Madison Square Garden," Villanova guard Collin Gillespie told reporters after scoring 22 points against the Pirates. "It's a really cool experience to play in front of that crowd with all the teams having people there. That's what the Big East is -- tough games every night."

Providence advanced to the quarters after soundly defeating Butler 80-57 in the opening round on Wednesday.

Maliek White scored 19 points while Alpha Diallo added 18 points and eight rebounds. David Duke scored 16 points while Isaiah Jackson had 13 in the balanced offensive effort.

The Friars (18-14) hit 11 of 23 shots from beyond the 3-point arc to help eliminate Butler.

Providence was swept by Villanova in both games this season by a total of 24 points, but an upset Thursday would likely put the Friars back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

"I am proud of the team," Providence head coach Ed Cooley told reporters Wednesday. "They kept their composure after a slow start and got it done. Maliek was great. Real proud of the effort. Butler is an excellent team. We were fortunate to have some success tonight."

Providence scuffled a bit early but found its offensive rhythm in the second half, hitting nine of its first 13 shots after intermission to break the game wide open.

White's 19 points were a career high.

Providence shot better than 55 percent from the field and a sizzling 60 percent in the second half.

"I saw our guys playing with a lot of joy," Cooley told reporters. "It was a lot of fun. It was one our more complete games this season."

--Field Level Media