After cruising through the Big East’s basement en route to five straight wins, UConn men’s basketball (15-5, 6-3 Big East) experienced a rude awakening earlier this week as the Creighton Bluejays marched into XL Center and held the Huskies to one of their worst shooting performances of the season. The road ahead gets much tougher from here on out, and it starts with what is likely UConn’s toughest game of the season, playing on the road at Villanova (16-6, 9-3 Big East).
Like UConn, the Wildcats are also looking to get back on track, losing their last contest, 83-73, against No. 24 Marquette. Villanova was thoroughly outplayed in that game, allowing Marquette to shoot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from 3-point range as the Golden Eagles maintained a double-digit lead for a majority of the game.
With both teams coming off disappointing losses, the urgency to come away with a victory in this game will be incredibly high. The entire UConn roster is going to have to play much better than they have over the past two games or this one could slip away from them quickly.
When: 12 p.m. Eastern
Where: Wells Fargo Arena - Philadelphia, PA
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: Villanova -5.5, O/U 130
KenPom Predicted Score: Villanova 68, UConn 60
When UConn has the ball
It starts and ends with Adama Sanogo, especially against an undersized Villanova team that is very susceptible to being beaten down low. The Wildcats rank second to last in the Big East in rebounds per game and last in field goal percentage against. Sanogo has to be fed right from the opening tip and establish that he is going to be a force to be reckoned with all afternoon. It is going to be extremely important for UConn to deal the first blow here, and Sanogo is the player that has the most exploitable matchup on paper. Eric Dixon, Villanova’s big man, has a similar build to Sanogo at 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, but cannot compete with the skillset and scoring instincts that Sanogo possesses on the block. While Creighton’s length clearly frustrated Sanogo throughout the game, Villanova doesn’t have anyone who can give him those kinds of fits.
In Villanova’s six losses this year, their total rebounding margin is minus-45, with an average of almost 10 offensive rebounds allowed per game. UConn is first in the conference in offensive rebounds per game (14.7) and ranks second nationally for offensive rebounding percentage (38.1 percent), trailing only the Josh Carlton-led Houston Cougars. Simply put, UConn has to dominate on the glass, especially on the offensive side, and get as many second opportunities as they can because possessions will come at a premium in this one.
Both UConn and Villanova rank in the bottom third of Division I teams for tempo, but both are in the top 31 in terms of offensive efficiency, per KenPom. Villanova ranks No. 6 nationally in the latter category, and there is not a single team that has a bigger margin between their offensive efficiency rating and their adjusted tempo than the Wildcats. Translation - Villanova churns the clock with slow methodical possessions, but is a well-oiled machine on offense for the most part. This is precisely why guys like Andre Jackson and Tyrese Martin have to hit the offensive glass hard and manufacture as many second-chance points as possible.
While RJ Cole should provide his usual steady presence running the show at point, his matchup with Collin Gillespie is the other battle that will be under a microscope in this game. Both veteran lead guards are consistently called upon to make one-on-one plays while also setting up their teammates for success. Whoever is able to get under the other’s skin more may decide the outcome of this game. Look for Whaley to screen Cole free on the perimeter and try to open up some lanes to the basket so he can either score, get to the free-throw line, or dish to guys spotting up from beyond the arc.
If Polley or Hawkins can splash a couple of 3-pointers each, it would take a ton of pressure off of the starting guards, namely Cole and Martin, to not feel like they have to do everything offensively for this team. The duo is a combined 0-12 from long range in the past two games, and if that number doesn’t improve, UConn’s chances of beating this Villanova team shrink drastically.
When Villanova has the ball
Jay Wright teams have historically lived (and died, but mostly lived) by the 3-point line, and this team is no exception. Villanova comes into this game leading the Big East in 3-point makes (9.5) and attempts (26) per game, and are second in percentage (36.2 percent). Gillespie leads the show for what feels like his 10th collegiate season and he’s improved every year he’s been under Wright’s tutelage. The Pennsylvania native leads the team in points per game (17.6) and 3-point percentage (42.6 percent), both of which are career highs. His assist numbers have been noticeably down this season at 3.0 per night compared to 4.6 last season, perhaps a testament to how much this Villanova team misses their co-Big East Player of the Year Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who left early for the NBA last year.
It’s not just Gillespie that puts up big numbers for the Wildcats, as five other players average more than 8.6 points per game, with junior guard Justin Moore leading the way with 15.1. Moore and fellow shooting guard Caleb Daniels both utilize their 6-foot-4, 210-pound frames by posting up smaller defenders and either scoring over them or drawing easy fouls in the paint. This will be much harder to do with the likes of Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson matching up with them, both of which have a slight size advantage. Even if Moore and Daniels aren’t able to outright win the physical battle on the perimeter, the two veterans are more than adept 3-point shooters, hitting at 37 percent and 41 percent respectively.
Throw in one of the more versatile forwards in the country in fifth-year senior Jermaine Samuels, and you already have enough firepower to hold serve in the Big East. Samuels has had a down year by his standards, shooting a career-low 25 percent from beyond the arc and is averaging fewer points, rebounds, and assists this season as compared to last, but he is a guy you absolutely cannot overlook. He had plenty of games last season where he hit three or more 3-pointers, so playing him similarly to how Creighton did against Isaish Whaley is not an option here. Look for Hurley to throw a combination of Whaley and Akok Akok on Samuels, and if the Wildcats decide to go small with Samuels at the five, Sanogo needs to eat him alive on the offensive end.
Rounding out the starting lineup is Brandon Slater, a lengthy left-handed wing/forward mold that is an excellent slasher and finisher around the rim. Look for him and Tyrese Martin to try to blow by one another on the perimeter and even have some tough post battles in this one.
Villanova is a very well-coached veteran-laden team that has played more than their fair share of big games together. UConn is going to need to put together one of its best performances of the season to pull off the win in Wells Fargo Center.