When the clock strikes midnight on July 1, UConn athletics will be back where they belong in the Big East. Of course, this Big East isn’t exactly the same as when the Huskies were last members, so we caught up with writers who cover schools in the new Big East to get the lowdown on how things are going.
For this edition, Eugene Rapay — a site manager for VU Hoops, Villanova’s SB Nation site — took some time to answer some questions on the Wildcats and the new conference.
Note: these questions and answers have been edited lightly for clarity.
What have the last seven years been like without UConn in the Big East?
Without UConn, like everything at first with the massive conference realignment with schools darting for the ACC—as well as the American and new Big East being born from the ashes—there was an adjustment period in the beginning. Just getting used to the reality that these are the teams now in the Big East, and these are a couple of newcomers. Everything’s been good though, I guess when you’re Villanova you can’t complain too much.
The toughest part for the Big East was probably trying to gain national respect. It’s definitely picked up steam over the years, but it still doesn’t seem like it gets its due. Those actually in tune with college basketball can appreciate it, but there’s still a sense with some naysayers who discredit it for not being Power 5 or not the “old” Big East. Maybe having UConn around, as a brand that people recognize, would’ve helped given it more respect out of the gate.
What was your fanbase’s reaction to the news that UConn was rejoining the Big East?
For the most part it was positive. The Villanova-UConn three-year series was fun, at least for the Wildcats anyway, but I think when the series went to Madison Square Garden that one year—the energy and attendance in that building was incredible, and I think everybody could sense that.
I think anyone who was upset at the move looks at UConn like their ex who left them. The “oh, now they come crawling back” mentality, but in reality wasn’t UConn left in the American? Schools left for the ACC, Catholic 7 + a few midwestern schools formed the “new” Big East, and the Huskies got stuck with the leftovers. UConn isn’t really the bad guy here, although you guys might’ve dumped a little too much money into football (smirk).
Aside from renewing old rivalries, one of the biggest perks of the Big East is an easier travel schedule for both teams and fans. Assuming it’s safe to travel come college basketball season, what do Huskies fans need to know about your arena(s)? Any restaurants/bars/destinations you recommend?
Editor’s Note: I went to UConn/Nova last year at the Wells Fargo Center and it was one of the best college basketball atmospheres I’ve seen in a long time. Can’t recommend seeing a future UConn/Villanova game enough.
Wells Fargo Center is on a street with all the other stadiums, Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia Eagles) and Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia Phillies). Down the street, in a very walkable distance, is a spot called Xfinity Live which is a popular pre-game, post-game spot. It’s basically a massive sports bar, with a variety of dining kiosks and lots of giant screens, so if tailgating isn’t for you, that’s a popular spot to hit in the immediate area.
As for Philadelphia, definitely got to get a cheesesteak, no doubt. Also, it’s a city rich with history, so if you feel like being a tourist, plenty of spots to see.
UConn and Nova have been involved in plenty of classics during the old Big East days. Is there one game from the first go around that sticks out for you?
It was before my time at Villanova, but the 2006 showdown in Philadelphia. Thank you to whoever uploaded that whole game onto YouTube. Must’ve been awesome to be there live. I watched it without knowing the outcome of the game beforehand, and it was amazing. I graduated in 2016, so I don’t have too many personal memories of the Huskies.
I remember watching when Villanova went on the road and won in 2013, in the final season of the OG Big East. Ryan Arcidiacono was cash money that game. Then, the following year, was the 2014 NCAA Tournament, which I’m sure was unforgettable for you guys, but Shabazz Napier was nightmare fuel.
Is there a better dressed coach in all of basketball than Jay Wright?
I think we both know the answer to this!
Villanova was always a contender in the old Big East, but had trouble translating that to success in March as the old conference came to an end. Two titles later, that has obviously changed. Do you think that’s due to the strength of the new Big East, Wright improving as a coach, some better luck, or some combination of all of that?
I think you can argue all the above, but I think the biggest factors were Jay Wright becoming more experienced as a coach and also recruiting the pieces to fit his system vs. top ranked guys on paper.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s bringing in 4-star, 5-star guys, but they seem to be the kind ready to buy in and play their parts in the system. Although he gets flak from some people for not getting the one-and-dones, he’s shown that he can make it work doing it his way and recruiting the players that fit what he’s looking on the court and character-wise.
After that 2009 Final Four, when ‘Nova was rising under his watch, he’s come out and said that he recruited and acted in a way he thought “big time coaches were supposed to act,” going for McDonald’s All-Americans, guys looking to go NBA ASAP, top-ranked guys, then figure the rest out later. It was one of the reasons for a decline in the early 2010s, before reevaluating his style and aiming for talent plus the right fits to build a culture, and then 2016 and 2018 happened.
Dana O’Neil’s book on the 2016 title team, Long Shots, really showed his growth from his first Final Four in 2009. Back then, he and ‘Nova was just happy to be there and even had players’ families and boosters sitting in on film sessions and team meetings. Can you believe that? In 2016, it was treated as a business trip. So, I think learning from experience, recruiting players that fit his style, being more comfortable and confident in his ways, and the excellent player development we’ve seen lately has been the keys to his success.
Much like UConn, Nova has always had strong guard play, and players like Scottie Reynolds, Allan Ray and Ryan Arcidiacono have torched the Huskies in years past. Which Wildcats guard should Huskies fans be on the lookout for this season?
Collin Gillespie, otherwise known as Ryan Arcidiacono’s lost brother, has gotten better and better with each season and really stepped up as a junior. Justin Moore is coming off of a very strong freshman season and is the second-highest scorer among all returning Wildcats. Caleb Daniels was a bright spot on a Tulane Green Wave team that didn’t win a single conference game in 2018-19, and put up impressive numbers despite being the focal point of opposing defenses’ scouting report. He sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, but word out of the practice gym is that he’s for real. Also keep an eye out for Bryan Antoine, a McDonald’s All-American and consensus five-star recruit coming out of high school. He spent most of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, but with time to rest and after a year in the system, he’s primed for a better sophomore showing.
To me, Villanova was at the forefront of positionless basketball, using four to five guards frequently during the old Big East. While the Wildcats have a ton of front court talent now, is versatility still a key cog in Wright’s offense?
For sure. Versatility has been a key theme for the ‘Cats in recent years and that shouldn’t change. Even though Villanova is wing and forward heavy now, we saw Bey run the point at times and defend anyone from the 1-4, sometimes even the 5. Jermaine Samuels could match up with a variety of positions. And then some of the younger or incoming ‘Cats have a wide ranging skillset as well. It’s to the point where Wright is valuing versatility on offense, as well as in his switch heavy defense.
Even with Saddiq Bey gone, there’s still plenty of talent left between Justin Moore, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, and Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels. What’s the expectation for this year’s Villanova squad?
If Bey returned, I think the expectations and excitement would have been through the roof and into outer space for ‘Nova Nation. Even though he’s moved on, there’s still plenty of high hopes. Like you mentioned, a lot of players coming back, this team only graduated a senior walk-on from last year, so the Wildcats are reloading. Especially with the anticlimactic ending of the 2020 college hoops season, everyone here is chomping at the bit to see what this team can do next season.