VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) No longer at the top of the national poll, Villanova is still No. 1 in the Big East.
Stitch another year on the championship banner, the Wildcats are again the class of the conference – a familiar regular-season coronation they can only hope doesn’t produce the same old early March exit.
Kris Jenkins scored 14 straight points and a career-high 31 overall, leading No. 3 Villanova to an 83-62 romp over DePaul on Tuesday night and the outright Big East championship.
The Wildcats (26-4, 15-2) are Big East champs for the third straight season and had already clinched the top seed for the conference tournament next week in New York. The Wildcats won the tournament in 2015.
“It’s something at the end of the year, we will take great pride in,” coach Jay Wright said. “We really do take pride in the regular season. We evaluate our program by what we do in the regular season. That’s how we make all our decisions.”
But the ultimate jury is in March, where the Wildcats haven’t advanced out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2009. The Wildcats were eliminated three times over that span as a No. 1 or 2 NCAA seed.
“We know that we get judged publicly by how you do in the tournament,” Wright said.
Maybe Jenkins can help change the tourney ending. He scored 20 points by halftime and opened the second with consecutive 3s, topping his previous best of 23. The Wildcats shot 68 percent in the first half and proved they are still a force at any ranking.
The Wildcats slipped to No. 3 in the Top 25 after three weeks at No. 1. The Wildcats went 5-1 at No. 1 and lost last week at Xavier.
Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 junior forward, averaged 11.9 points in his first full season as a starter and stuffed a game’s worth of production in 3:31. With Villanova leading 11-10, Jenkins buried four straight 3-pointers. He forced a steal and went in for a layup that made it 25-10 and capped his outburst.
“My teammates do an unbelievable job of making the right play,” Jenkins said. “Recently, the right play has just been to catch and shoot.”
Jenkins came out for a breather and Ryan Arcidiacono promptly buried a 3 that stretched the lead to insurmountable for DePaul (9-20, 3-14).
Eli Cain led DePaul with 14 points.
“He’s become our most consistent player because his mindset has been tremendous and he’s just trying to do the right things to help our team be successful,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said of Cain.
The outcome was never in doubt, Villanova has won 12 straight against the perennial Big East cellar dwellers.
With all the hype on freshman guard Jalen Brunson, and senior stalwarts Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu carrying a bulk of the scoring load, Jenkins went a bit unnoticed until the past month.
He averaged 9.6 points through Jan. 10 before he scored 20 points against Marquette on Jan. 13. In 13 games since, he averaged 14.8 points and 4.4 rebounds. He shot 33 of 81 from 3-point range over that span.
Jenkins was 11 of 18 from the field and was the first Wildcat this season to top 30. He is a big reason why the Wildcats enter the Big East Tournament as the top seed for the third straight season. The Wildcats will play Thursday against the 8-9 winner from Wednesday night.
Win it all in New York and the Wildcats will surely enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.
But for a few days, there’s a Big East title to savor.
“I’ll love that accomplishment at the end of the season,” said Josh Hart, who scored 18 points. “Right now, it’s something cool. But we’re not focused on it.”
DePaul: The Blue Demons shot a solid 12 of 22 (55 percent) in the first half and made 6 of 9 3-point attempts. … DePaul made a 3 for the 705th straight game. … DePaul fell to 2-6 this season against ranked teams. … DePaul had 17 turnovers. “A lot of it was their gap defense and their hands being in good position, a lot of it was just our ineptitude of making point-to-point passes,” Leitao said.
Villanova: Villanova has 12 seasons of 25-plus victories in program history, six since 2006. … The Wildcats won their 39th straight game at the Pavilion and had their 169th consecutive sellout. … 76ers rookie center Jahlil Okafor was at the game. … Villanova held a moment of silence for Mike Daly, who played on the 1971 NCAA Final Four team, and died last week.
DePaul hosts Seton Hall on Saturday.
Villanova hosts Georgetown on Saturday.