Last January, I made the trek to Hartford, Connecticut to watch the then-#1 and would-be-National Champion Villanova Wildcats take on the four time National Champion UConn Huskies.
During the pregame bar crawl, I was told by a fellow Villanova fan that, when sharing her plans for the day with some locals, she was met with confused looks as “the women’s team isn’t playing today.”
The women’s team was not playing that day. But, the men’s team, who have won two national championships in the last decade, was playing...the #1 team in the country...down the block...in an hour.
While I’d love to rely on outrageous anecdotal evidence and make sweeping generalizations about a fan base, I will refrain from doing so here. I will however acknowledge that UConn basketball is currently a far cry from the preeminent program it once was.
When the realignment meteor obliterated the Big East, Villanova and UConn took opposite paths. Villanova left under the cover of darkness to align itself with a conference content to stake its reputation solely on the quality of its basketball product. UConn, likely viewing itself as comparable to the Rutgers and Marylands of the world, chose to stand firm with its football program, thus constraining the school to remain in the rotting husk of the Big East (ultimately renamed the American Athletic Conference).
My sincere wish is that within a few years I get to watch UCF be the AAC's representative in the first eight-team playoff on the same day UConn opens conference play by hosting Georgetown at Gampel.— UConn should be in the Big East (@NoEscalators) December 12, 2018
The merits of UConn’s decision (or its lack of options) has been debated ad nauseam by people far more familiar with the program than I am so I will not go into it. Further, we already know that you can contend for a national title while playing in a largely irrelevant conference. Ask Gonzaga and Conference-USA-era-Memphis, a team that now sits in the AAC alongside the Huskies. Hell, ask the 2014 UConn Huskies. So, for the most part, UConn’s present conference alignment doesn’t preclude the school from returning to glory on the hardwood.
However, at the risk of editorializing, the conference alignment has deprived UConn of every meaningful opponent it has ever had. While I sit on my couch in my skivvies bemoaning my relative lack of interest in our budding rivalry with Xavier, UConn fans are making cheer sheets for weeknight match-ups against ECU.
As such, UConn fans have resorted to getting their jollies in the non-con where they’ve tried to claw back as many marquee and regional opponents as they can muster.
Thinking about the maps pic.twitter.com/sjBe7gwuhE— UConn should be in the Big East (@NoEscalators) December 10, 2018
With rumors swirling about the expansion of conference schedules, there are concerns that UConn’s opportunities to schedule meaningful games outside the AAC will become fewer and farther between.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with a school who has enjoyed unparalleled success since realignment and a school that was, for lack of a better analogy, shot in the face by realignment.
However, both schools can agree that a match-up against an opponent you heard of prior to 2013 is an occasion to celebrate.
You Had Me at “Hurley”
Former head coach Kevin Ollie, a four year player for the Huskies under Jim Calhoun, was fired last year for “just cause” amidst an investigation concerning recruiting violations. The firing was not completely out of the blue as, besides the unlikely 2014 title, the Huskies had struggled to consistently compete under Ollie.
In late March, the Huskies hired Dan Hurley, son of legendary coach Bob Hurley and brother of Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley, as head coach. Hurley, coming off his sixth season at Rhode Island, a program he led to a 113-82 record and two NCAA appearances during his time there, represented a fresh start for a program desperate to begin contending again.
The Huskies, currently sitting at 9-3, are ranked #78 in KenPom. The team’s best win came against Syracuse in November with close losses coming at the hands of Arizona and Florida State earlier this month.
UConn is a decent shooting team, especially within the arc. Their offense skews heavily towards 2-point shots, which they hit at nearly a 55% clip. They are very guard oriented and thrive on taking teams to the rim. In fact, the Huskies are anything but with not one of their four starting guards measuring in at more than 6’2/190.
Despite the lack of size, the Huskies are voracious on the boards, ranking top 25 in offensive rebounding percentage. On defense, the Huskies are adept as forcing turnovers and pushing the tempo, something Villanova has been unable to do thus far this year.
Madison Square Guard-en
The Huskies are led by senior guard Jalen Adams, who is averaging 17.6 points in just under 30 minutes a game. Adams shoots a blistering 65% from two and just under 35% from three. He’s undersized but is quick and can finish at the rim and off the dribble. Last year, Adams was criticized for his shot selection, something he has been working on this season as evidenced by his improved shooting percentage.
Adams is assisted primarily by Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital. Gilbert, another diminutive guard, is averaging just over 12 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds a game. Vital, chipping in just under 12 points a game, tallies over 5 rebounds a game and shoots nearly 40% from deep. Nebraska transfer (by way of Duquesne) Tarin Smith is coming off a 20 point game against Drexel in which he shot 7-7 from the field. Guardo McGuardface is coming off a 15 point performance...just kidding. There are just a lot of guards.
Dan Hurley going from chest-bumping his own player to calmly shaking the hand of Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim is absolutely legendary. pic.twitter.com/MDb4QlpY2p— Kyle Boone (@Kyle__Boone) November 16, 2018
Should win or must win?
The Huskies are still coming together under Dan Hurley but the team has shown a level of energy and enthusiasm that has been missing over the past few seasons. While Villanova projects to be victorious, a team playing in front of a packed Garden crowd and looking to remind everyone that they belong is something to be feared.
For Villanova, the team will be looking for an opportunity to right the ship after two straight losses. After a brutal loss to UPenn, the ‘Cats were rewarded with a trip to Lawrence and deprived of any (reasonable) shot at redemption. The UConn game provides both the perfect opponent and perfect venue to re-calibrate heading into conference play. While a win or loss may not ultimately make the difference in March, another frustrating game is the last thing the ‘Cats need right now.
The game tips off Saturday at 12:30 p.m. from Madison Square Garden.