VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Jay Wright offered a quick salute to 30 or so of the former Villanova players honored at halftime during an alumni celebration.
“Some former great players in the house today,” Wright said. “I don’t know if you noticed.”
Oh, sure, the Pavilion crowd gave polite applause for the lineup that included Chris Ford and Harold Jensen. But the true Villanova greats in the house and catching notice were the ones romping their way toward another effortless game during a record winning streak.
Josh Hart scored 20 points in another performance that bolstered his player of the year candidacy to lead No. 1 Villanova to its 18th straight win, 90-48 over American on Wednesday night.
“I’m really pleased with their humility and their drive to get better,” Wright said.
The Wildcats (12-0) fattened their flawless start on the strength of blowout wins against the Eagles, Wake Forest, Lafayette and the rest of a nonconference slate that posed little serious threat to pull off an upset. The national champion Wildcats rose to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the second time in program history over their unbeaten start and have not lost since the Big East Tournament title game.
Play time is over. Bring on the Big East.
“I judge where our program is by what we do in the Big East,” Wright said. “I think if we’re at the top of the Big East, our season is in pretty good shape.”
Hart, who made two 3-pointers and 7 of 14 shots overall, will have to stay at the top of his game at the start of conference season. The Wildcats open against DePaul, then play consecutive road games against ranked teams Creighton and Butler. Xavier, also a Top 25 team, is the fifth game on the Big East schedule and each team wants to wrest the conference title away from the Wildcats.
American (3-8) flirted with the idea of a competitive game over the first 10 minutes. The flow early had a familiar feel: Villanova, seeded third, rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat American in the opening round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia. Playing on campus, the Eagles failed to put a serious scare into Villanova and snapped a modest two-game winning streak.
The Wildcats made 9 of 10 shots during a 21-2 run and scored on 15 of their first 20 possessions in the second half to blow this one open. Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall scored 15 points each and Jalen Brunson had 14 points and six assists. The Wildcats shot 63 percent (15 of 24) in the second half.
“Coach challenged us to get in the game,” Hart said. “We didn’t come out, especially the three seniors, and set the tone early. Second half, he challenged us again. We had a good talk in the locker room.”
Delante Jones led the Patriot League’s Eagles with 12 points. American, which entered as a 32-point underdog, can take solace in the fact it played a solid first half against the Wildcats. American had the game tied midway through the first half and wouldn’t let Villanova build a double-digit lead until late in the half. The Eagles were done in by 10 turnovers in the first half.
“We knew how good they were,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “Even if they are bad, they don’t play bad. It was a total buzz saw. I don’t think we were ready for it. I thought we hung in there and did some good things. It was just too much for us.”
Villanova is done with nonconference games until a Jan. 29 meeting with Virginia.
The Wildcats won their 44th straight game at the Pavilion and are inching closer to the school record of 46 straight wins from 2007-2011.
The Wildcats again were without national championship game star Phil Booth. Booth, who scored 20 points against North Carolina in the title game, missed his ninth straight game with left knee inflammation. There is no timetable on Booth’s return.
“We can’t progress to the next step until he is pain free,” Wright said.
Paschall has been a solid addition after sitting out last season as a transfer student, Paschall, the 2014-15 Atlantic 10 rookie of the year at Fordham, has hit double-digit scoring five times.
“Just playing with these dudes make it a lot easier,” he said.
American plays Loyola (Maryland) on Dec. 30.
The Wildcats open the Big East season at Dec. 28 at home against DePaul. Villanova has 12 straight wins in the series.