Arguably the best team in the league faces a tough rest Saturday against an opponent that’s tough to figure out. This isn’t 49ers-Packers, but No. 1 UConn men’s basketball versus Villanova. Can the Huskies up its six-game winning streak in Philadelphia? With Donovan Clingan back and having just put the clamps on No. 17 Creighton, the top-ranked Huskies will face off against the Wildcats on Saturday.
Clingan, who missed four weeks with a foot injury, came back for 16 all-important minutes on Wednesday, which helped UConn hold a high-powered Creighton offense to 48 points, which is the lowest it’s surrendered in conference play since Dec. 17, 2022. UConn now boasts the No. 3 offense and No. 33 defense in the country per KenPom, while Villanova’s offense and defense checks in at KenPom No. 38 and No. 40, respectively. the Wildcats are a solid squad, but if the Huskies are guarding at the level it was on Wednesday, or if the offense is flowing like it was the prior five games, then they should pick up another Quad 1 win.
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -2, over/under 138.5 (odds via DraftKings)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 71, Villanova 69 | 58 percent win probability
UConn is 34-39 all-time against Villanova and 3-4 since returning to the Big East. Having swept the series last year by an average of 10 points, the Huskies are looking to even the series up in the Dan Hurley era with a fourth-straight win over the Wildcats. The first game in this streak, back in February 2022, was an RJ Cole and Kimani Young masterclass.
What to Watch For
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Villanova lost on the road to Marquette on Monday, and has one of the more head-scratching resumes out there, with wins over North Carolina and Memphis down in the Bahamas, but also a baffling stretch where the Wildcats stubbed their toe against local foes Penn, St. Joseph’s, and Drexel. For a stretch, they looked like the worst of the Big Five in Philadelphia. Aesthetically, sometimes there are glimpses of the Jay Wright teams of the past, with crisp ball movement and a balanced scoring attack. Their analytics are kind, with nothing really jumping off the page.
But more often than not, Kyle Neptune’s team gives off shades of the Kevin Ollie teams from 2015-2018, with lots of individual talent but a whole lot of isolation ball. However, home game models and a massive target on UConn’s back as the top team in the polls means the Wildcats will be at their best Saturday.
All Around Me Are Familiar Faces
The supporting case might have been upgraded, but its the same two stars for ‘Nova that do the heavy lifting. Senior forward Eric Dixon leads the Wildcats in scoring (15.3 points per game) while shooting 36 percent on 3-pointers and boasting the team’s highest usage rate by a wide margin. Having just held the more vertical 7-foot-2 Ryan Kalkbrenner to 11 points, the frontcourt duo of Donovan Clingan and Samson Johnson will now face an undersized, 6-foot-8 bruiser who can muscle opponents inside or stretch the floor with his shooting. It’s a totally different type of test, one that will require a lot of smart off-ball help from Alex Karaban, Cam Spencer, and other wing players. In Villanova’s win over Creighton in December, he had quite the evening.
Eric Dixon had himself a special night in Villanova's upset victory over 12th-ranked Creighton.— CBB Analytics (@CBBAnalytics) December 21, 2023
32 PTS / 6 REB / 8-11 2PM / 4-10 3PM pic.twitter.com/oeEWSMcZeu
However, UConn has had success against Dixon in the past, holding him to seven or fewer points in three of the last four matchups.
An Achilles injury sapped Justin Moore’s explosiveness, but he is still a veteran three-level scorer averaging 11.9 points per game that will be a tough test for Stephon Castle. While the Wildcats’ supporting cast of TJ Bamba, Tyler Burton, and Hakim Hart are excellent role players and fit well together on paper —they all average between seven and nine points per game — they’re not game-breakers the way Dixon and Moore are. With backup point guard Jordan Longino out with an ankle injury, UConn’s depth should prevail. There won’t be anything that confounds UConn defensively if the Huskies stay out of foul trouble and don’t let Dixon and Moore burn them.
Villanova gave up an astonishing 60 points in the paint against Marquette on Monday. UConn had the same amount of rebounds (48) as Creighton did points on Wednesday, and won the paint battle 36-20. With a top 10 offensive rebounding rate, Clingan’s minutes getting ramped up (slowly), and Villanova struggling to guard in ball screens, the Huskies should own the the paint.
Hard Hedges versus Drop
With Clingan back in the fold, we saw UConn’s defense return to elite status. One of the reasons the Huskies boatraced the NCAA Tournament last year was because Adama Sanogo and Clingan gave UConn the ability to run two different looks on defense. Sanogo went to the Isaiah Whaley school of hard-hedging, while Clingan was beyond his years at drop coverage into the paint. Hurley and the coaching staff have run that back in 2023-2024, with Samson Johnson improving as a hard hedger and Clingan his usual self back there.
When Clingan was hurt though, Johnson had to be more of a hybrid of the two so as to avoid cheap fouls out on the perimeter. That’s a tall task for a guy who’s getting his first meaningful minutes of his career this year. Now, backing up Clingan, Johnson can aggressively hedge ball screens and funnel traffic to areas of the court UConn are content with. Despite Villanova ranking 235th in the country in assists per game, nailing defensive rotations for drop versus hedge will be vital against the pick-and-pop threat of Dixon.
Beware the Midrange
Lost in the shuffle of UConn’s own stifling defense was a little bit of a tell from Creighton coach Doug McDermott on how to slow down the Huskies offense. The Bluejays, with Kalkbrenner in drop coverage, laid off Stephon Castle and Samson Johnson, giving both the Andre Jackson treatment, which shut off all that beautiful off-ball movement UConn has shown in the last year. It didn’t hurt the Huskies on Wednesday because Spencer and Tristen Newton hit just enough midrange shots. But going forward, if teams are offering up that inefficient midrange look, it will take a lot of coaching to not settle for those shots. Castle went 2-for-12 from the field and was still able to impact the game with his positional flexibility, ball handling, and rebounding. As long as the Huskies don’t stray from their identity, the blueprint against them will be hard to execute.