NCAA Tournament: 3rd Round
Saturday, March 22, 2014
When: 9:40 pm Eastern
(7) UConn Huskies (27-8, 12-6) vs.
(2) Villanova Wildcats (28-4, 15-2)
RPI: UConn: 23 | Villanova: 5
KenPom: UConn: 24 | Villanova: 6
First Niagara Center (Capacity: 19,500)
Where: Buffalo, NY
Odds: Villanova | O/U: OFF
Story of the Season
The Connecticut Huskies were always a team that looked likely to make it to the postseason. They are one of the two teams that beat the top-ranked Florida Gators already this season. They have picked up eight losses since then, including a serious clunker to the underwhelming Houston Cougars in AAC conference play.
Ranked highly at the start of the season, they have stuck around in the polls, while landing at number-18 in Monday's final pre-Tournament poll. Other than Houston and two-losses to snubbed SMU, UConn's other losses all came at the hands of teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament field this season. The new American Athletic Conference was a bit of a challenge this season, but UConn won their way to the league tournament final before picking up a third loss to Louisville.
The Huskies are driven by senior guard Shabazz Napier, one of the top players in the nation at any position. Allowed to run rampant, Napier has the skill set to carve up a defense in short order. Relied upon heavily, he plays 87.1% of the available minutes, and he generally doesn't disappoint. As Napier goes, so do the Huskies this season.
Many of the names on this team will be familiar from last season's team that went 20-10 and 10-8 in the final season of the pre-split Big East. That team missed the postseason due to an NCAA ban, but the 2013-14 Huskies are a veteran-laden team that has finally caught up with their new head coach. The Huskies -- like Villanova -- have proven this season that they can both beat anyone in the nation, or lose to anyone.
Let's take a look at the Huskies' key players.
It is tempting to start and end this preview with Shabazz Napier. The starting point guard is unquestionably the star of this team, but his does have some help. Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey -- two juniors -- have also played a ton and scored a ton for this team.
So, while we won't end with Napier, lets start with the star:
The 6'1" senior guard has been as important to the 2013-14 Huskies as Scottie Reynolds was to the Wildcats as a junior and senior. He leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. He shoots around 41.7% from the floor, and the Huskies struggle when he isn't. In the ten games where he was held below 40%, the Huskies lost six.
That said, Villanova fans mostly remember him for doing things like this:
Napier also leads his team in turnovers, averaging 2.8 per game, contributing to an offense that turns the ball over 17.5% of the time -- averaging 12 per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is still pretty impressive though, at 1.8 assists per giveaway.
With so much emphasis on Napier's success driving a UConn offense that is ranked 62nd in the nation, he is the obvious focal point for opposing defenders. Stopping Napier is obviously important, and Villanova will be working hard to corral the star with a rotation of guards. Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis and Tony Chennault will all be asked to stick with the UConn point guard, with help coming from whoever else is within reach.
Another recognizable name for Villanova fans, the 6'9' junior forward is the Robin to Napier's Batman. DeAndre Daniels will present a match-up problem for Villanova at the forward position. He takes a backseat to his backcourt teammate on the scoreboard, but make no mistake, he's a scorer too. Averaging 12.7 points on 46.7% from the floor and 43.9% from deep.
Take a look at his highlights below:
Offensively, he can take it to the rim, score from mid-range or knock down a jumper from outside. He prefers to do his scoring inside the arc, taking less than a third from outside, but left unguarded he will burn an opponent from deep. He's a skilled player who may well become a team-leader in multiple categories, but currently is second to Napier in the major ones -- scoring and rebounding.
He's also second on the team in blocks. He will look to challenge Pinkston or Bell, or whichever of the Wildcats he is matched up with. There won't be easy shots for the Wildcats if Daniels is playing aggressively on defense.
The Huskies' triumvirate wouldn't be complete without the 6'0" scoring guard. Ryan Boatright averages 12 points per game and is second on the team in assists and steals with 3.5 and 1.5 per game, respectively. He shoots well from downtown as well, sitting at 38.8% for the season.
He is a dangerous player with the ball in his hands, both capable of a quick move to the basket or a feed to his teammates, he has good court vision and very good athleticism. He gets into the lane easily, but often looks out of control when left to his own devices. When working with teammates' help, however, he can be a scoring machine.
Here are some of his highlights:
The German senior swingman started just eight games, but played in all of them, playing the fourth-most minutes of any player on the team. He earned it too, with a deadly jumper from deep that connects 52.4% of the time. At just 8.6 points per game, though, the Berliner can sometimes get lost in the mix behind his more heralded teammates.
That said, he could be a key player for the Huskies against the Wildcats. With a noted deficit defending the perimeter, unleashing a player like Giffey could give UConn an added edge.
The Huskies are the underdogs as a 7-Seed, but it surely won't feel that way on Saturday night. KenPom.com is giving them a 39-percent chance of victory, but even statistics can go out the door when an entire season is on the line. The Huskies don't love the 3-pointer, but they can shoot it, ranking 22nd in the nation from beyond the arc. Villanova is 214th in the nation at defending the perimeter.
UConn had to battle 10-seeded St. Joseph's in their tournament opener, leaning on Napier to carry them to the win. Napier will similarly present a challenge for the Wildcats, but can he carry this team to an upset on his own?
Villanova is the better-rated offensive team at 19th in the country. UConn, however, is a close match for the 'Cats in terms of defensive efficiency. If both teams execute their defense, this could turn into an old-school Big East slugfest very quickly. The Wildcat's rebounding strength may be their key to victory, especially if the Huskies struggle with their shooting.
Putting away Milwaukee wasn't as easy as the final score suggested, of course, and the Wildcats are even less likely to overlook a program like UConn. The Huskies will challenge Villanova to make shots from deep and to defend the perimeter. This group could be like the dysfunctional Villanova team of 2010, playing well individually, but not truly gelled into a cooperative effort; but if they play a strong team game, they could charge forward like the 2009 'Cats.
Villanova's challenge is to force them to look like the former.
UConn's main advantage here could be outside shooting. Their backcourt lacks size and overall the team has only a slight advantage in that department. The Huskies have athleticism, but have been lacking on the offensive glass. In order to avoid a letdown in game-two, the Wildcats will need to exert some pressure on the perimeter to force bad shots, and continue to work the boards hard, eliminating many second chances.
The Huskies are led by second-year Head Coach Kevin Ollie, who returned to his alma mater as an assistant to Jim Calhoun. When the long-time UConn chief retired before the 2012-13 season, Ollie was thrust into the top job, and was eventually granted an extension after a 20-win season.
UConn is Ollie's only real coaching stop. As a player, he spent 14 seasons as a professional, playing with the Connecticut Pride of the CBA from 1995 until 1997, before bouncing around various NBA teams for the remainder of his career. He moved into the coaching ranks after ending his professional career with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2010.