After a stifling defensive performance against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals to secure a 62-52 win, the UConn men’s basketball team will take on No. 2 seed Villanova Friday night in the semifinals. The Huskies and Wildcats split the season series this year, with Nova handling the Huskies in early February but UConn putting together a convincing win just over two weeks later at home in front of a raucous XL Center crowd.
While the Wildcats are favored, Villanova struggled to get by the No. 7 seed St. John’s, trailing by as much as 17 before clawing back and escaping with a 66-65 victory. Whether it was first game jitters, an off night or something in between, the Wildcats may not be be playing their best basketball but still has managed to win all three of their games since losing in Hartford on Feb. 22
When: 9 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden - New York City
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: Villanova -3.5, over/under 131
KenPom Predicted Score: Villanova 68, UConn 65
When UConn has the ball
UConn’s offense wasn’t pretty against Seton Hall, but it was still good enough to get the job done. The Huskies averaged 1.03 points per possession against the Pirates, and still managed to pull out a win despite a mediocre performance from Adama Sanogo, who scored just six points on 2-11 shooting. With Sanogo not contributing as much as usual, Isaiah Whaley stepped up early on to get things going and finished with 10 points and six offensive rebounds, while the backcourt duo of Tyrese Martin and RJ Cole did their usual work with 17 points each.
Martin and Cole will need to continue to shoulder the offensive load to match the production of a dynamic Villanova backcourt led by Collin Gillespie. Sanogo should bounce back — he has not been held in the single digits in back-to-back games this season, and won't have to deal with Seton Hall 7-footer Ike Obiagu this time around — and his presence and Whaley’s on the boards will be key giving the Huskies extra chances on the glass.
Andre Jackson didn’t light it up offensively Thursday night, but did hit a big 3-pointer in the first half after teams have had success against UConn baiting him to shoot all season. While the mechanics aren’t always pretty, Jackson is still shooting 36.4 percent from deep this year. If he can even hit one deep shot early on, it will help open up the paint for him, Martin and Cole to drive to the hoop and prevent double teams on Sanogo and Whaley in the post.
Tyler Polley was also an offensive spark plug off the bench despite being a late activation due to illness. With Jordan Hawkins likely unavailable for the entire Big East Tournament, Polley’s 3-point shooting will be needed to space the floor against Villanova and could help bail the Huskies out of any offensive lulls.
With the injuries and illnesses possibly holding Hawkins and Polley out of the game, the door is once again open for Jalen Gaffney to make a legitimate difference. He is a capable 3-point shooter, and if he can hit some open shots created by a collapsed defense it would go a long way for the Huskies and another factor that the Wildcats would have to account for that is definitely not in the scouting report. Akok Akok should also see some action in this one, especially if Sanogo gets into foul trouble at any point. Akok started the first contest against Seton Hall and was 2-4 from three. Akok has only averaged five minutes per game over his last four, but may be a critical piece for Dan Hurley on both sides of the ball moving forward.
When Villanova has the ball
The Wildcats started slow against the Red Storm, shooting just 23 percent from the field in the first half and trailing 30-23 after the first 20 minutes. With usual starter Jermaine Samuels out due to back spasms, it took some time for Nova’s offense to round into form, but eventually the Wildcats leaned into their experienced upperclassmen for offense and got the results they were looking for. Caleb Daniels led the team with 19 points, and Justin Moore added 15.
Point guard Collin Gillespie also reached double figures with 14 points, and the trio helped rip off a 21-6 run in the second half to take the lead with eight minutes remaining. They’d trade baskets with the Red Storm down the stretch but eventually hold on to advance thanks to two clutch free throws from Brandon Slater.
For UConn to have a chance against the Wildcats, the Huskies will need to keep Villanova off of the free throw line, where they are the best shooting program in the country at 82.6 percent. Villanova hit 17 of 20 free throws Thursday night against St. John’s, and their efficiency from the charity stripe gives them an extra buffer if their usually strong offense isn't clicking right away. All in all, this is a classic Villanova team — experienced guards and versatile bigs and wings that can shoot from deep and pose as matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
With Samuels, who scored 13 points against UConn last time out, potentially out once again, the Huskies will almost certainly rely on the trio of Daniels, Moore and Gillespie to get most of their buckets. Expect Gillespie to be featured in the post to take advantage of his size compared to Cole, much like Seton Hall did with Kadary Richmond in the quarterfinals.
Eric Dixon struggled Thursday and didn’t do much better in the loss to UConn, scoring four points in each of those contests. However, the sophomore was a matchup nightmare in the first game between these two teams this season, where he scored a career-high 24 points and added 12 rebounds.
In general, Villanova’s experience, depth and versatility makes them a tough out in just about any tournament, and the Wildcats are likely the odds-on favorite to win the Big East now following Providence’s debacle with Butler Thursday afternoon. This semifinal matchup serves as a final barometer for how prepared these teams are for the tournament and could determine which Big East team gets the highest NCAA tournament seed in the conference.