Based on how the UConn men’s basketball team has played this season, it was already a pretty safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament prior to Saturday's matchup against Xavier. Every major bracketology forecast had the Huskies in the Big Dance for the second year in a row. But with UConn’s emotional 72-61 win over the Musketeers, ESPN’s John Gasaway now has the Huskies as a lock for the tournament, joining Providence and Villanova.
While the update really means nothing — Gasaway and ESPN don’t have any say on who makes the tournament and who doesn’t — the “lock” prediction does make sense. By conference record, Providence, ‘Nova and the Huskies are the top three teams in the Big East, the fourth best conference in the country this year per KenPom. It makes sense that one of the best conferences in the sports gets more than one or two at large bids.
Add in the fact that UConn ranks No. 18 in KenPom, is top 30 in offensive and defensive efficiency, and has an easier end to the season than most Big East schools with matchups against two of the worst teams in the conference, and it’s easy to see why the Huskies should be dancing again under Dan Hurley.
With an NCAA Tournament berth almost certainly secured, UConn has four games left to strengthen its resume and possibly win the Big East regular season title. The latter is unlikely, as Providence needs to win just one of their final three games and the Huskies would have to win out to have a shot at first place. Currently, the Friars are favored to win two of their final three per KenPom, setting up a potential showdown for the regular season title between Villanova and Providence on March 1.
The Huskies could play spoiler to this by beating the Wildcats at home on Tuesday, which would pull UConn into just one game out of second place. If the Huskies can’t beat the Wildcats, they’ll need to defeat the Big East basement of DePaul and Georgetown and hold off a tough Creighton team on the road on March 2 — one that is currently tied for third place in the conference with the Huskies.
“We’ve got a stretch of games coming up, this is why we came back to this conference for days like this,” Hurley said following the Huskies’ win over Xavier.
Should UConn win out, it would boast a seven-game winning streak with five wins against teams in the top 65 of KenPom. That would give Hurley’s team a serious resume boost and some excellent momentum heading into the first Big East tournament that will allow fans since the Huskies joined the new conference.
Winning four games in a row, including beating ‘Nova at home and Creighton on the road, is a tall task. If the Huskies can just avoid a road loss to Georgetown and a home loss on Senior Day to DePaul, UConn shouldn’t fall out of the six-to-eight seed range most outlets currently project them to hold.
“The first couple of years we didn’t have much of a chance to beat them,” Hurley said of Villanova. “They were significantly better than us and they’ve played better than us. They’ve had a better season than us to this point. But now we have a chance to play them at home in front of a sellout crowd that’s gonna be rockers.”
A loss to one could send the Huskies into double-digit seed territory. A loss to both would be catastrophic, and could be enough to bounce UConn out of the NCAA Tournament if coupled with a lackluster Big East tournament performance. Currently, KenPom has UConn at an 85% and 87% chance to beat the Hoyas and Blue Demons respectively, so while it’s unlikely, it isn't out of the question.
For now, Hurley isn’t worried about those games down the road. He’s focused on trying to beat Villanova for the first time in his career on Tuesday night.
“You’ve got to beat them. I mean, you’ve got to play at a high level,” Hurley said. “We’ve earned the right on Tuesday night to play one of the games of the night in college basketball. A lot of effort, a lot of work over the years has gone into this moment on Tuesday night and we need to go for that game.”