How to Watch
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Streaming: FOX Sports Go
Radio: 97-9 ESPN
Location: Finneran Pavilion
KenPom Rankings: UConn – 36 |Villanova – 11
The UConn Huskies square off against Villanova for the 67th time Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats hold the all-time series advantage, 36-30, after winning their most recent matchup last season. In that game, the Huskies hung tough and let the game slip away in the last four minutes of the second half (it was painful, I was there). The team was still learning how to win in general, especially on the road, which was no easy task against a team like Nova. The Huskies are finally at full strength; James Bouknight returned to help lead the Huskies to a victory over Providence. Bouknight and the Huskies will now look to take down the team that has stolen their Big East throne. Can the Huskies get revenge and knock Nova off their Big East pedestal?
Some will say the Huskies are still looking for a signature win on the season, although you could argue that their early season win over USC (12 in KenPom) is looking better and better. A win over Villanova heading into March would be a season-defining win. Like most teams this year, Villanova has been beaten up by COVID-related pauses, but they are looking to finish their season strong. Villanova uncharacteristically dropped games to both St. John’s and Creighton recently. However, beating Villanova will be no small task.
I hate to give Villanova too much credit, but it’s hard not to, given their recent and sustained success in the new Big East. Under Jay Wright, the Wildcats are what every program in the country should aspire to be. It is not that they just recruit well, they always seem to have the perfect balance of veteran calmness and underclassmen talent. I know the word culture is thrown around haphazardly in sports far too often, but when Hurley (and other coaches) speaks about developing a culture, he is talking about what Villanova has. They are nothing if not consistent, never too high and never too low, and it is because Jay Wright has a system in place. The tone is set by the veterans and the freshman follow suit. In my opinion, we need to give Hurley a few more years, but this matchup is going to be the most fun rivalry in the Big East (at least for UConn and Nova fans). It will be a battle for the throne of the Big East as long as Wright and Hurley are there.
Okay, back to Saturday. There isn’t much that needs to be said. The top-rated defense in the league (UConn) vs the top-rated offense (Villanova).
Villanova is tough, regardless of their two recent losses. They are an annual final four contender for a reason. This year, they are led by senior guard Collin Gillepsie (14.1 PPG, 5.1 APG) and sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (15.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG). Their supporting cast is also stellar. As a team, Villanova comes in the with 45th rated adjusted offense in the country (per Kenpom, obviously good for best in the Big East). Their defense isn’t quite as good, 88th in the country (and 9nd in the Big East). Regardless, there’s no way around it, Villanova is a great team, and the Huskies will have to bring their best collective effort of the year if they plan on knocking off the Wildcats.
Speaking of best collective efforts, UConn might have put that together in their most recent win over Providence. Of course, James Bouknight’s play had a lot to do with this, but just his presence on the court elevates the team. You can see a boost in their confidence and intensity. With him on the court, they know they can hang tough with any team in the conference. UConn looked engaged on defense and this helped fuel their offense. Granted Providence is no Villanova, but that is beside the point. Tyrese Martin, RJ Cole, and others can more comfortably settle into their roles as the second and third options (in no particular order). Isaiah Whaley continues to be the defensive anchor, and lately he seems to be getting a lot of help from Andre Jackson. Jackson has come on strong, particularly on defense. He hounded David Duke all game and UConn will need that defensive energy against Villanova.
The path to victory against Villanova is narrow for any team, so UConn will need to be lights out on defense and efficient on offense. This game is a big opportunity for the Huskies to showcase their ability and get one step closer to taking back their position atop the Big East. Are they up to the task?
We are in for another good old fashion Big East battle. UConn and Nova play some of the slowest basketball in the country. Although, with the return of Bouknight, the Huskies are looking to get out and run. Who will control the tempo? The Huskies will have to stop a formidable Villanova offense though. The Huskies will have to put forth their best 40 minute effort of the season. This game will be a good measuring stick to see where the Huskies stand heading into March.