This Saturday, the Villanova Wildcats and the Connecticut Huskies will meet for the first time since 2014. All of the Wildcats and Huskies that played in that game have since graduated. This will be the beginning of a three-year series with the Huskies. I asked Aman Kidwai from The UConn Blog for his perspective on the upcoming game, as well as conference realignment rumors.
Tip off is Saturday, at 12 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. For those who cannot attend the game, it’ll be on CBS.
1) This Saturday, we’re going to get some Jalen vs. Jalen action with Brunson and Adams going up against each other, for their respective teams, at the point guard position. What makes Jalen Adams such a special talent, and who do you think wins this duel?
Adams has proven himself to have the all-around ability to take over a game. He can dribble, pass, finish at the rim and has a consistent shot. Mick Cronin, who I’m loathed to ever give credit to for anything, once made a very good comparison that Adams was like Barry Sanders on a basketball court. He can slide through small spaces, change direction quickly, and just make things happen. He clearly has some of that Gordon/Williams/Kemba/Napier DNA, but unfortunately, he doesn’t have nearly as great of a supporting cast as his predecessors, so I think Brunson will win the one-on-one matchup because he’ll have less of a burden on his shoulders.
2) Last season, UConn was bogged down by a couple injuries to Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert, two players that looked so promising until they went down. Fortunately for the Huskies, Larrier is back this season and is a top contributor, what does he bring to the table as a healthy player this season? How has UConn able to manage without the former McDonald’s All-American in Gilbert?
Larrier is a prolific scorer. He has good length, and when his three-pointer is going he’s a remarkable threat. He’s at his best when making plays in the mid-range, but too often settles for threes. When he’s clicking though, it’s very smooth and quite a thing to watch.
Since Gilbert went down again, things started going pretty badly for UConn. Going into the PK80 Tournament in Portland, Gilbert helped lead UConn to a solid win in a de-facto road game against Oregon, but then re-aggravated that same injury in a loss to Michigan State. UConn then got run off the court by Arkansas and has been on a slide ever since. It’s clear UConn misses Gilbert’s presence, although the team should be performing better without him anyway.
3) Aside from this “Big 3” dynamic of Adams, Larrier, and Vital that UConn seems to have, who are some other players to watch out for and what can they do on the court?
Freshman big man Josh Carlton has shown some signs he could be a player, though he’s definitely at least a year away from it.
4) What impresses--or scares--you most about this Villanova team? How does it stack up against some past ‘Nova squads that you’ve seen the Huskies face?
Well that number 1 next to the name is pretty scary and the most impressive about this team is how many different ways it can beat you and how badly it has beaten some of the better teams on its schedule. I’d say this ‘Nova squad stacks up nicely with those teams of the mid-to-late 2000s that had great battles with UConn. Unfortunately, the Huskies have not held up their end of the bargain heading into what should have been a fun non-conference matchup.
5) First time both teams are seeing each other since the 2014 NCAA Tournament Round of 32, how can UConn pull off another upset? What does it need to do to make the unlikely happen again?
An upset Saturday is a lot less likely than in that 2014 Round of 32 game, but if it’s going to happen, UConn needs Terry Larrier back on the court. He missed the Memphis game and a Husky team that already wasn’t doing great offensively got much worse. Second, they’ll need to catch fire from a shooting perspective, hitting an uncharacteristically high number of threes, and then maybe get Villanova into some foul trouble-- this UConn team has been really good at the line. I think it is very, very unlikely that the upset happens, though.
6) Speaking of that 2014 NCAA Tournament that resulted in a national title for the Huskies, it hasn’t exactly been all great for the Huskies since then. Kevin Ollie was very highly regarded for the job he did in that tournament, how do you feel about him since then?
It’s complicated. Last year did not go well, but many fans are comfortable writing that off as a byproduct of two key players getting injured early in the season. What was worse was that three promising younger players transferred, a top-40 recruit flipped to Providence, and the way parts of this season has gone has turned many fans against Ollie and they’re ready to fire him immediately.
It’s not that simple though, there is a large buyout, one which UConn is unlikely to be able to afford, and there are some reasons for optimism given the roster makeup and incoming 2018 recruiting class if we can write off this as a run of poor roster management by a relatively green coach. Kevin Ollie is not a perfect coach, but he has what it takes to be a really good one if he can learn on the job. Does he deserve a mulligan after losing so many players? Does he get another pass with Gilbert out this season again? Can UConn afford to pay his buyout and hire an adequate replacement? I don’t know...
7) A lot of rumblings coming out of the state of Connecticut it seems like, when it comes to conference realignment. How do you personally feel about the American Athletic Conference and the possibility to jump ship for someplace else? How do you feel about the football team looking like the anchor that’s held you guys down and locked in the AAC? Are you on the ‘move to the Big East’ hype train, or do you have another conference in mind?
Ever since the Catholic 7 left the Big East and then bought the name, UConn Basketball being in the new version of the Big East would have been preferred over the AAC. I’m not going to pretend I’m enjoying two games a year against East Carolina and Tulsa than I would two annual games with Villanova and Georgetown. But football is a big money driver in the business of selling television rights to amateur athletics, so there is some merit to pursuing the big bucks of the power five with an FBS football team. That UConn struck out on that endeavor doesn’t mean it was a bad idea, they’ll just have to hope there’s another round of realignment in the near future.
I think we’ve seen some power five football schools make significant improvements to their basketball programs over the years simply because they have a few million lying around to do it, for example, when Virginia Tech hired Buzz Williams away from a significantly more successful Marquette program. Down the road, I feel the power in basketball will shift to those schools who are simply making much more money. Another thing for UConn fans to consider is that a lot of the punch of the old Big East we know and love is gone with Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Notre Dame, no longer there. It’s still a better basketball conference than the AAC, but we’re still hopeful this is a temporary home.
With that said, I am surprised by how competitive the Big East has been able to remain, and genuinely impressed by teams like Providence and Seton Hall who have improved since the split. In a vacuum, I would be for UConn moving to the Big East but I wouldn’t drop football or move down to FCS to do it. If we could find a suitable FBS home, I’d be all for it, but I’m skeptical such an option exists. Ultimately, this comes down to whether or not we believe UConn can get a P5 invite. If so, we need to keep trying with football because we need it to get in and the program was decent until Randy Edsall left; now he’s back. If not, drop that sucker and save basketball.