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The Dagger

Out of nowhere, Villanova is relevant again after back-to-back wins over top-five teams

Darrun Hilliard celebrates with JayVaughn Pinkston during Saturday's win (USA TODAY Sports Images)

How quickly fortunes can change this topsy-turvy college hoops season.

Five days ago, Villanova was below .500 in Big East play, mired in a three-game losing streak and not even viewed as a realistic NCAA tournament threat. Now, the Wildcats suddenly have new life thanks to back-to-back astonishing victories against a pair of top five opponents.

Villanova followed up its upset of Big East co-favorite Louisville on Tuesday night by also toppling fellow league title threat Syracuse on Saturday afternoon. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono buried a game-tying corner 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in regulation and James Bell knocked down a pair of huge threes in overtime, propelling the Wildcats to a 75-71 victory over the Orange.

The importance of this week's victories for Villanova's NCAA tournament hopes cannot be overstated. The Wildcats, now 13-7 overall and 4-3 in the Big East, cracked the RPI top 50 after beating Louisville and surely will rise even higher now.

[Related: NC State student writes touching column about legendary UNC coach Dean Smith]

There were few signs Villanova was an NCAA tournament caliber team prior to this week.

A youthful Wildcats team that lost its two leading scorers from last year's woeful 19-loss season fell to Alabama by 22, to Columbia by 18 and to Temple by 15 in non-conference play this season, raising concerns this year's team may not be any better. Those fears appeared to be confirmed last Saturday when a three-point loss at Providence dropped Villanova to 2-3 in Big East play entering by far its toughest three-game stretch of the season.

What improved for Villanova this week was its offensive efficiency, an unlikely turn of events considering the strength of both Louisville and Syracuse defensively.

Villanova fans stormed the court again (USA TODAY Sports Images)Villanova, 14th in the Big East in field goal percentage and points per possession, prior to this week shot a very respectable 45.8 percent against Louisville and 44.4 percent against Syracuse, well above the season average both teams have allowed. Guard Darrun Hilliard scored a combined 36 points in the two games and center Mouphtaou Yarou tallied double figures in both, providing badly needed help to Arcidiacono, Bell and JayVaughn Pinkston.

While Villanova was a bit too reliant on the 3-point shot against Syracuse's zone Saturday, Bell, Hilliard and Arcidiacono knocked down some big ones to keep the Wildcats within striking distance. Yarou also controlled the paint, scoring 14 points and grabbing 16 boards by shredding the zone via the high-low and the offensive glass.

Despite Villanova's success attacking the zone, Syracuse will head home feeling as though it should have won.

With a six-point lead and 3:36 remaining in regulation, the Orange got slow and tentative on offense, which contributed to them not scoring the rest of the game. They also missed a chance to foul up three when Yarou grabbed an offensive rebound with just seven seconds left in regulation, enabling him to kick out to Arcdiacono in the corner for the game-tying 3-pointer.

Villanova is surely thankful for those mistakes because it negated the Wildcat's own poor free throw shooting and enabled them to finish off a season-changing comeback.

At the very least, Villanova is relevant again in college basketball. Now we'll see if the Wildcats can sustain it until March or if this week was merely fool's gold.

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