Happy Friday, my cool ‘Cats and kittens. This preview is being written while heavily under the influence of Marquette-induced midnight delirium and probably a general lack of daily vitamins and minerals. We shall see how the VUhoops Editorial Control Board (me, sometime on Thursday) decides to handle this one.
The #12 Villanova Wildcats, fresh off of completing the Get Swept by Marquette Challenge, will welcome the #17 Connecticut Huskies to Philadelphia on Saturday for a much-anticipated Top-20 showdown. Oh, boy.
Villanova leads the all-time series 36-31 and is presently on a four game winning streak spanning back to 2017-2018 (#dynasty). Villanova’s last loss to the Huskies came in 2013-2014 when the #6 seed Wildcats were unceremoniously Shabazzed out of the NCAA Tournament.
The 2021-2022 Huskies are off to a great start this season in Dan Hurley’s 4th year at the helm. UConn handed #1 Auburn their only loss of the season - a 115-109 double-overtime fever dream in November - and beat Marquette in Milwaukee. However, narrow losses to West Virginia, Providence, and Seton Hall have prevented the Huskies from securing some additional Quad-1 wins.
What is UConn’s most impressive win this season?
This poll is closed
Defeating now-#1 Auburn in double OT
Defeating Marquette at all
So, what can we expect on Saturday afternoon?
The Huskies are defined by their stifling defense - especially inside the arc. They rank Top-20 in nearly every KenPom defensive metric, specifically 4th in the country in 2P%. Combine that with a #4 ranking in Block% and you can see where this is going. “This” being a Villanova scoop layup and “where” being 5 rows deep into the stands.
It will be incredibly difficult for Villanova - specifically the team’s slower guards - to make much noise at the rim in this one. In the past, UConn has struggled to contain quicker guards that are able to beat their long defenders off the dribble. Gillespie and Moore are methodical and physical in the paint - a molasses-like attack that UConn will likely be able to absorb. As I will touch on below, the key to this one will be outside shooting.
UConn has an athletic defender at nearly every position and they implement Hurley’s man-to-man defensive relentlessly. The front-court is anchored by 6’9 senior Isaiah Whaley and 6’9 sophomore Adama Sanogo. Whaley, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East, is ranked 5th in the conference in Block%. Sanogo is a strong and tough post player who sits just behind Whaley as the 8th best shot blocker in the conference. In the front court, 6’6 Tyrese Martin and 6’6 Andre Jackson have the size and strength to disrupt Villanova’s guards.
However, the Huskies do not generate many steals and are bottom-40 in A/FGM on defense. If Villanova can take care of the ball - especially in the passing lanes - the ‘Cats may be able to generate some good looks. Given their stoutness inside, the Huskies are more than willing to give up the three ball and risk getting burned for it.
But, as we know, it’s not 2018 - a sentiment I scrawl in lipstick on my bathroom mirror every morning. On paper, Villanova’s offense is impressive - ranked 6th in AdjO. This (somewhat) inflated ranking is buoyed by the ‘Cats low Turnover% and elite free throw shooting, the best in the county. However, the ‘Cats arguably have only two consistent scoring options, especially from deep. This leads to an ugly on-court product and frequent offensive droughts.
Collin Gillespie (42.4%) and Justin Moore (36.9%) have the lion’s share of three-point attempts this season (302 combined). While Caleb Daniels has been a spark off the bench - especially from deep (41%) - the shooting struggles of Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater have often made it easy on opposing defenses. While Samuels and Slater provide value on the boards, the ‘Cats cannot play 2 on 5 on offense. While Eric Dixon continues to improve on the offensive end, he will face an incredibly tough battle tomorrow against UConn’s suffocating backcourt.
On Saturday, Gillespie and Moore should see some open looks from outside. If either of them can hit at a respectable clip, Villanova will have a lot more options against a UConn defense that will make it very difficult to operate in the paint. Bombs away!
As for the speed of play, the Huskies rank #259 in tempo. While that pace might make Jay Wright wipe his brow, this game won’t be a track meet. UConn drags out possessions, especially on defense, and has little issue bleeding the clock. This is a welcome sign for a Villanova team that struggled mightily against a speedy Marquette squad.
On the offensive end, the Huskies are prone to their own scoring droughts. UConn is not a strong shooting team, ranking 103rd in 3P% and 238th (?!) in 2P%, and have felt the loss of James Bouknight, formally the go-to option when the Huskies needed a bucket. However, while shot selection and poor shooting have been an issue, the Huskies have mitigated these struggles with elite offensive rebounding. UConn ranks 2nd in the country in Off. Reb. %. There are no style points for the UConn offense - the Huskies will gladly get dirty under the basket.
R.J. Cole is the Huskies leading scorer averaging 15.9 points per game while dishing out 4.5 assists, good for 5th in the conference. Undersized, Cole, a 6’1 senior guard, is an intelligent playmaker and has developed into the Huskies main shooting threat. However, Cole occasionally struggles when sped up by the defense. Villanova will need to disrupt Cole early and cut off entry passes to the post.
This preview was perhaps a little doom and gloom. Coincidentally, those are also the names of ‘Nova’s baseline inbound plays (ba dum tis). The reality is that Villanova is coming off a tough loss where the Cats on their heels from the jump. The ‘Cats were knocked out of their comfort zone, were thrown off their game-plan, and were playing catch-up for 40 minutes. Similarly, UConn is coming off an ugly loss against Creighton where the Huskies shot under 30% from the floor. Both teams will be looking for a palette cleanser tomorrow afternoon - I expect a low-scoring battle (mid-60’s?) from tip to whistle.
In related news, I will be down in Philadelphia for the game so please come say hello if you spot me. I have a lingering fear in the back of my head that Villanova will be wearing the 70’s yellow throwback/University of Marquette of Ann Arbor jerseys. If that’s the case, I will be accepting any and all beverages pre-game. Thanks in advance.
The game tips off at 12:00pm on FOX. Go ‘Cats!