No. 10 Villanova has been a powerhouse in college basketball ever since UConn the Big East left in 2013. They have been the best regular-season team in the conference every season since 2014, except in 2018 — but they won their second national title under head coach Jay Wright anyway.
The Wildcats (13-3, 8-2 Big East) have gotten there by playing differently, by having shooters like Collin Gillespie, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson lead them to postseason success.
UConn (10-5, 7-5 Big East) hasn’t been nearly as successful in recent years. They are currently in year three of their rebuild under Dan Hurley and have steadily climbed back into contention as those years have passed.
Hurley’s teams are built on athleticism and suffocating defense. They have a roster built around a star, sophomore James Bouknight, but they have bundles of talent supporting his scoring.
They are a team that blocks shots, limits 3-pointers and turns defense into offense. Villanova is a team that buries threes, doesn’t turn the ball over and will sometimes get their shot blocked. Not exactly a recipe for a UConn win at first glance.
“We’re going to have to play great one on one defense because as soon as you help, they cut, or they step into a three,” Hurley told reporters Friday night over Zoom. “So, you’ve got to be really smart and really careful with how much help you give.”
On Saturday, UConn will face off against the No. 5 ranked offense in the nation, according to KenPom. While they are a measly No. 88 defensively, they can score the basketball at will. They have scored under 70 points just twice this season, a loss to St. John’s on Feb. 3 and a win over Texas back on Dec. 6. It’s important to note that UConn has won just two times while allowing more than 70 points in a game. While this is the best offensive team Hurley has ever had, at least on KenPom’s record, defense is still their calling card.
“They’re going to have to really rise to the level of this game because we’re going to see the best version of Villanova tomorrow,” Hurley said.
While the Huskies aren’t favored to win, they have a path to victory. They need a stellar scoring night from Bouknight, a second scorer like Tyrese Martin to step up offensively, much like he has these past few games. On defense, R.J. Cole needs to clamp up Gillespie and Caleb Daniels and Isaiah Whaley needs to make sure Jeremiah Robinson-Earl doesn’t kill them in the paint. Oh, and don’t let Jermaine Samuels drop 19 on you again. Simple, right? Not quite, but it’s possible.
Bouknight has shown up and scored every chance he’s gotten in his injury-shortened season. He has scored at least 18 points in every game this season, except the Marquette game where he hurt his elbow in the first half, but still played the second.
Since transferring from URI, Martin has been a revelation for the Huskies, especially while Bouknight was hurt. He has scored double-digit points in each of his last nine games and in 11 of his 14 this season. The junior is currently the third-best 3-point shooter in the conference, behind just Nate Johnson and Samuels.
At times, Cole has done a fantastic job of limiting opposing guards from scoring in bunches this season. He essentially shut down Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski back in December, allowing him to score just 11 points on 4-14 shooting in UConn’s overtime loss to the Bluejays.
On the Whaley front, he has the 16th-highest block rate in the nation, swatting 11.45% of chances.
If all of these individual performances come together seamlessly, UConn could walk out of the Finneran Pavilion with a smile on their faces and a wild bus ride back home ahead of them. If not, UConn Twitter might have a field day. Well, either way, UConn Twitter is going to have a field day.
UConn takes on Villanova at 1 p.m. Saturday, televised on FOX.