For years, any matchup with a former conference rival was nothing more than a reminder of what UConn basketball used to be. Games against teams like Syracuse, Georgetown, and whatever former Big East team they played served as bait for fans to remember the glory days, but the games didn’t have the same meaning. Big East basketball in its prime was an ouroboric terror of hatred. Unlike, say, SEC football, Big East basketball fans would curse rather than celebrate their conference-mates’ successes—and due to the strength of the league, it was mostly cursing.
But the old powers tended to decline once the conference broke (give or take a UConn championship in 2014), and soon any UConn games against St. John’s and the like didn’t really matter outside of the two fanbases, who had settled in to shared nostalgia like two old generals who fought on opposite sides of the same war. The only former Big East team who stayed strong through the wreckage was Villanova, who has won two championships in the meantime, and doesn’t give a damn about your nostalgia. They’re here to whoop UConn’s butt.
It’s a nice preview to the welcoming UConn will receive upon rejoining the Big East next year. The conference is still strong. It’s not the earth-destroying behemoth it was in its heyday, but the Huskies will have to build new rivalries in order to find their footing. They can get off to a good start by exposing the Wildcats as an overrated team that can’t play defense and doesn’t deserve a top-25 spot, but the Huskies’ guards will have to break their shooting slumps in order to do so. Against a great coach in Jay Wright, that’s not going to be that easy.
Villanova’s short rotations give the Wildcats some vulnerability against deeper teams, which will make it all the more difficult that the Huskies’ best shooter Tyler Polley will miss the rest of the season due to injury. The Wildcats aren’t too big, which is a plus for the Huskies, but they’re skilled, which is not a plus for the Huskies. Despite their defensive issues, which do exist, Villanova has gotten this far on the strength of a well-rounded offense, and two players are still in deep shooting slumps that don’t reflect their actual ability, a trend that has the potential to reverse itself against UConn.
The issue with beating the Wildcats is that for every potential vulnerability, they have a strength to counteract it. The only pathway to beating them involves hitting a lot of outside shots, which the Huskies haven’t consistently done outside of Polley. Unleashing a lineup of bad matchups, which would by necessity have to include James Bouknight and Akok Akok, might be the strategic key.
Facing perhaps their toughest opponent of the year and having lost their best shooter to injury, the Huskies need to make adjustments after losing three of their last four. They’ll also need to get better officiating than they did against Wichita State, which isn’t exactly in their control. Shooting is, though, as is cutting down on the preventable turnovers that got them to this point. In a game that represents the future of the program, the Huskies will need someone to step up through the adversity and prove that they can compete against top-tier programs.
Prediction: One of Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital plays well again, Akok looks potentially dominant in about 22 minutes, but the Huskies just aren’t that competitive. Villanova 82, UConn 66.
How to watch
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When: 12 pm
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network