How to watch
When: 1 p.m. EST
Where: Finneran Pavilion, Villanova, Pennsylvania
Radio: UConn Radio Network
Line: Villanova -7.5, O/U 138
KenPom Predicted Score: Villanova 72, UConn 66
With two straight wins and James Bouknight healthy, UConn is playing some of its best basketball as of late. This couldn't be coming at a better time as the Huskies travel to Philly to take on the No. 10 Villanova Wildcats in what might be their toughest matchup of the season.
In his first game back since elbow surgery, Bouknight picked up right where he left off, torching the Friars for 18 points in 25 minutes, showcasing every bit of the athleticism and scoring ability that make him one of the best players in the country. He did not start against Providence, but will likely slide back into the starting lineup Saturday.
This is the two teams’ first meeting since UConn joined the Big East. In a non-conference matchup last year, the Huskies hung around against the No. 14 Wildcats in Philadelphia before ‘Nova pulled it out down the stretch to win 61-55. Akok Akok was a major force on both ends in that one, scoring seven points with four boards and three blocks in one of his last games before an Achilles tear ended his season.
Almost exactly a year after his injury, Akok is back in action, but played just one minute in Tuesday’s win over the Friars. Head coach Dan Hurley said Friday night that Akok should be “fresher” and more available against Villanova. It would also be the first game Akok and Bouknight both play for more than a minute together this season. The Huskies aren’t necessarily at full strength, though; senior Tyler Polley is a game-time decision with an undisclosed knee issue.
As for Villanova, the Wildcats haven’t played in a week, when they lost 86-70 to No. 14 Creighton last Saturday. Even with the loss, Nova still sits in first in the Big East standings at 8-2 and 13-3 overall. The Wildcats also are the highest-ranked team in KenPom that UConn has faced all season, at No. 11, one spot higher than USC, who the Huskies beat earlier this year.
Like most of Jay Wright’s Villanova teams these days, this squad is talented offensively but on the smaller side, reliant on guards, shooting, and speed. Once again, it’s working extremely well, as Nova owns the fifth-most efficient offense in the country and features three gifted scorers in Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
Both Gillespie and Robinson-Earl were named to the preseason first-team All-Big East team and have lived up to the hype, with Robinson-Earl leading Nova in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (7.3 per game) while Gillespie leads the team in assists. Moore is no slouch either — he’s one of five Wildcats shooting 33 percent or better from the 3-point line and is third on the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game.
With Gillespie running the show, Villanova keeps turnovers to a minimum and knocks down threes at a high clip, shooting 38.2 percent from deep as a team. The Wildcats should serve as a major test for UConn’s defense, which had struggled recently but returned to form in the wins over Xavier and Providence. For the Huskies to have a chance to win, they’ll need to close out hard on threes and use their size to dominate the glass to keep up with this elite offensive team.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball
The UConn offense, obviously, does significantly better with Bouknight on the court. His mere presence completely changes how teams have to defend the Huskies. Aside from Bouknight, RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin really elevated their games.
Villanova is a smaller team, with no players taller than 6-foot-9. With the way Adama Sanogo has played at times this season, it wouldn't be surprising if there's an effort to get him involved offensively early on. He’s shown the ability to bang down low and score with either hand, and it’s not out of the question that Josh Carlton, Isaiah Whaley, or even Akok could get some touches down low. While Bouknight is still the heart of this offense, some high percentage looks in the post will make it easier to keep up with Nova’s high-octane offense.
When Villanova has the ball
A healthier Akok for UConn could make a huge difference for the Huskies — they’ll need as many minutes as they can get from him to throw different looks on Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, and Cole Swider. Whaley should be able to help with this too, and their defensive effort will be crucial if they want to try and keep Robinson-Earl in check.
Gillespie is cut from the same cloth of so many of Nova’s great guards and is a tough matchup for UConn at 6-foot-3, so Martin or Andre Jackson may draw the assignment for most of the game, with Cole handling for smaller spurts. He’s a lights-out shooter at 37.3 percent from deep and does a great job getting to the basket and drawing fouls, where he shoots nearly 90 percent from the line. If he’s not able to create a shot, he can kick it out to a handful of excellent shooters in Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels, and Swider, who all shoot 39 percent or better from deep. Ever since his URI days, Dan Hurley’s defenses have done a good job of keeping 3-point attempts (and makes) in check, but this might be the Huskies’ toughest test yet.
A healthy Bouknight and a healthier Akok will make a huge difference, but this game boils down to an elite offense in Nova going against a solid UConn defense. The Huskies might be able to slow down the Wildcats a little bit, but the duo of Gillespie and Robinson-Earl might be too much to overcome on the road.
Villanova 75, UConn 72