When the Big East Conference coaches voted for their preseason choices, they did so with little faith in Villanova finishing in the top tier, picking it to finish 12th out of 15 schools.
Their opinion on the Wildcats might change after Saturday night's impressive 60-56 win over No. 17 Marquette before 6,500 at the sold-out Pavilion. Villanova (18-10, 9-6 Big East) now sits in fifth place in the conference and made a strong case for an NCAA bid.
The win was the third over a ranked team this season for coach Jay Wright's team. The Wildcats defeated No. 10 Louisville (73-64) and eighth-ranked Syracuse (75-71) in back-to-back games in late January at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, but in their highest-profile on-campus game, they went scoreless down the stretch and lost to Pittsburgh, 58-43, on Jan. 16.
Darrun Hilliard led four Wildcats in double figures with 22 points. Freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono and JayVaughn Pinkston added 11 points apiece and Mouphtaou Yarou contributed 10 points and seven rebounds.
Marquette (19-7, 10-4) received 12 points from Junior Cadougan. The Golden Eagles wilted under Villanova's pressure, committing 19 turnovers.
"We didn't play hard tonight," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams. "When you give the other team the ball 19 times and the winner is the first to 60, that's not hard enough."
The Wildcats grabbed the lead for good on a jumper from Pinkston that made it 31-30 with 14:38 to go. Marquette closed to within three at 41-38 at the 9:15 mark, but that was as close as it would get.
Hilliard scored the Wildcats next five points on two free throws and a 3-pointer to move the lead to 46-38 with 7:43 remaining. Hilliard struck again three minutes later, accumulating Villanova's next five points in a row to provide a 54-43 cushion with 3:32 to go.
The Golden Eagles, who entered the game in a three-way tie for first place in the conference, didn't quit. A 3-pointer from Cadougan with 1:21 to play made it a two-possession game at 56-50, and his jumper with 19.4 seconds left after Mouphtaou Yarou missed the front end of a 1-and-1 brought Marquette to within four at 56-52.
But Daniel Ochefu found Yarou all alone for a dunk, and then converted both ends of a 1-and-1 with nine seconds left to move the lead to 60-54.
"I was just trying to be aggressive," Hilliard said. "If the shot's there, I'm going to take it. I had a clear mind and tried to help my team out anyway I can.
"I was just trying to come into this game playing defense. If I come into this game playing defense and do the little things, I'm fine with anything."
Wright starts a freshman point guard in Arcidiacono and two sophomores in Hilliard and Pinkston, so he believes the pre-season assessment of his team by his peers was accurate.
"I really thought it was fair," said Wright. "We didn't really have a go-to guy and a lot of experience, but we still had guys who could play.
"We started getting better and better. We set a goal on seeing how good we can be and now it's turned our way."
Wright especially has faith in Arcidiacono, who was 3-of-10 from the floor Saturday night, but has done a nice job running the offense.
"He can go 1 for 10 or 5 for 6 and it doesn't affect him one bit," Wright said. "His head is in every play. He's like having another upperclassman out there."
Both teams shot the ball poorly in the first half, which was knotted at 21-21. Marquette was only 7 of 24 from the floor (29 percent), while Villanova sank just 6 of its 22 attempts (27 percent).
The Wildcats led 12-7 on a 3-pointer from Hilliard with 10:22 left in the half, but weren't able to connect from the floor again until there was 3:51 to go. The Golden Eagles outscored them 11-4 to move ahead 18-16. Todd Mayo scored all of his seven first-half points off the bench for Marquette during the burst.
Hilliard and Arcidiacono combined for 15 points for Villanova in the half.
Marquette faces a difficult path in two of its last four games. The Golden Eagles face Syracuse and No. 25 Notre Dame in their next two contests.
The Wildcats are 12-6 under Wright when they play a ranked opponent at the raucous Pavilion.
NOTES: Since the 2008-09 season when Buzz Williams took over, Marquette has posted a 21-21 record in Big East road games. Only Syracuse (30-13), Louisville (24-19) and Pittsburgh (23-20) have better road marks during that time span. ... Saturday was just the 39th time Villanova hosted a ranked opponent at the Pavilion. The Wildcats are 19-19 in those games. ... Marquette's Davante Gardner is fifth in the Big East in field goal percentage (.561), despite averaging just 21 minutes a game off the bench. He scored only two points in 11 minutes on Saturday.