Dan Hurley hopes his team can finish the non-conference schedule on a three-game winning streak, as his UConn Huskies take on reigning national champion Villanova at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
UConn improved to 9-3 with a blowout win over Drexel on Tuesday, and the Huskies will have a chance to finish with ten non-conference wins for the first time in three seasons. The contest against Villanova marks the final game of the 2018 calendar year for UConn, and the final game before facing AAC opponents exclusively.
Villanova, meanwhile, hasn’t exactly defended their national championship successfully so far. The Wildcats are 8-4 and have already fallen out of both major polls, ranking outside the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 25, 2013. Jay Wright has overseen the most successful stretch in program history, but it looks as if the team has fallen back to their prior level—successful but not earth-shattering.
That’s the sort of up-and-down that befalls every program (except maybe Duke and Kansas) at some point or another, and even though the Wildcats aren’t on a fast track to the Final Four anymore, they’re still a dangerous team.
Surprisingly, one area where the Wildcats don’t seem to be so dangerous anymore is in three-point shooting. Villanova has built its championship-winning reputation in large part because of its outside shooting, but this season, the Wildcats are only converting .338 of their attempts from beyond the arc. The Huskies, by comparison, are shooting .356 from three.
Villanova still has a threatening offense, of course, and that’s because of its inside shooting and offensive rebounding—and a few talented players. Phil Booth, who seems like he’s been at Villanova since 1998, leads the way on offense, averaging 16.9 points per game in the game manager role. While not a traditional point guard, he’s the best ballhandling option on the team. Eric Paschall and Collin Gillespie are the two other players averaging double figures; the bulky Paschall works better on the interior and Gillespie shows more of a threat from outside.
The Wildcats defense isn’t quite what it used to be either, although that’s not the fault of Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who has been a major standout on that end. The sophomore big man is a great rebounder and shot-blocker, and does it all without committing many fouls. Both teams draw a lot of contact too, of course, but neither has much of an advantage over the other on that front.
Strategically, Jay Wright hasn’t changed much. He’s still happy to let his team bomb the ball from deep even with their inconsistency from outside. The Wildcats have attempted 25 more shots from beyond the arc than inside it, and only the drop-off in consistency has made the offense less efficient.
What that means for UConn is that the defense will have to be on high alert for 40 minutes. The Wildcats might not hit that many of their outside attempts, but any player on the roster (except Cosby-Roundtree) could take one at any time. The Huskies offense is good, but it has struggled to score in bunches against major opponents, and two Villanova runs could put them behind permanently.
They will have their opportunities to score, though, especially if Josh Carlton continues to play well in the post, and if the trio of starting guards gets a little more careful with the ball. Christian Vital, in particular, cannot continue to give the ball away while simultaneously getting so little out of his successful passing attempts.
Given Villanova’s diminished defense, UConn will have plenty of chances to make its mark on the game. It’s just a matter of whether they convert the opportunities they get, and how many opportunities they can create for themselves.
How to watch
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
When: 12:30 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network