Filling up the nets, then cutting them down. That was motivation enough for Villanova, which arguably had more to lose than to win in the Big East Tournament. Coach Jay Wright said this event is "what you want to make of it,'' and his Wildcats made the absolute most of it.
A resounding 69-52 victory over Xavier in the final Saturday night at Madison Square Garden reinforced Villanova's season-long dominance of the conference and its place as a presumptive No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA Tournament.
With a chance to go deep in the biggest of dances, you would think the Wildcats (32-2) would have had some reservations about this meat-grinder of a tournament. It turns out the only one they had was reserving a place in the trophy case for the first conference tournament title in 20 years.
"I grew up coming to this tournament as a fan,'' Wright said. "When I coached at Hofstra, I would make sure I would come here to this tournament to watch Villanova. This is my favorite tournament. I love it. This is where we're all from. To come here and just play in it is a real thrill. To win it? I can't explain it. I don't think it has really sunk in yet. We love this league.''
For a third consecutive game, Villanova was sparked by sophomore Josh Hart, whose sixth-man status is testimony to the Wildcats' depth. In the previous two games, he shot 70.0 percent from the floor (14-for-20).
Hart had 15 points, shooting 7-for-9, and was named tournament MVP. Dylan Ennis had 16 points and Darrun Hilliard scored 12 in Villanova's 15th consecutive win.
Hart joined a list that includes Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Kemba Walker.
"It's an honor and definitely humbling to be in that list of guys,'' he said. "But I have to thank my teammates. When I have those guys' total confidence, I'm able to go out there and have fun.
"I wish I could play every game here,'' Hart said of the Garden the other day. He laughed when told that LeBron James recently said the same thing. "It's a nice feeling,'' he said. "It's humbling to go into a great, historic arena like this and play well.''
Conference tournaments have come a long, long way since the era when the Atlantic Coast Conference popularized the idea by holding a tension-filled event that determined which team would get the league's only NCAA bid. In stark contrast, six Big East teams were pretty much assured of getting into the Big Dance this year.
So what's the big deal about the four nights in New York?
"The beauty of these tournaments is that it's different for everybody,'' Wright said. "Sometimes you have a young team like [Marquette]. They won that game and it's a great step for them. If you have a team that's favored and you don't win it all, it's a negative. Sometimes it can tire you out for the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes it can take a team like UConn, who can win it, and help it go on and win the national championship.''
The Wildcats used a 10-0 run in a stretch of 2 minutes, 11 seconds to build a 27-14 lead over Xavier (21-13). Villanova found its shooting range in that burst, which began with a three-pointer and two-pointer by Hilliard.
At halftime, it was 34-21. Little more than two minutes later, after Ryan Arcidiacono hit a three, it was 42-21. And Villanova was off to the NCAA Tournament with a head of steam, and some freshly cut nets.
"They have a chance to win the national championship,'' Xavier coach Chris Mack said, "and they are not given nearly enough credit for how tough of a team they are, how hard they play, how unselfish they are. They're the true definition of a team.''