Game: #7 Connecticut Huskies vs. #2 Villanova Wildcats
Play: Saturday, First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY
In 2013, after more than three decades in existence and several years of turmoil, the Big East conference folded. Featuring fierce local rivalries, and often a distinct style of play, the Big East was not only drummed up local fanfare but national attention. During its run, the conference won seven NCAA Championships and had two Naismith Award for national player of the year winners. The Villanova Wildcats and the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies, scheduled for a March Madness meeting Saturday, were two of those national championship winners. While the Big East has been reborn this season–with Villanova a part of it–the pair are no longer conference rivals, as UConn now belongs to the the American Athletic Conference, but expect some old competitive feelings to resurface in an intense game.
Key Match-up: UConn G Shabazz Napier vs. Villanova G Ryan Arcidiacono
Napier has the definite advantage in this match-up. Although two inches shorter than Arcidiacono, Napier is faster and can get off any shot, often running off screens or using step-backs and fadeaways to get himself space. Both are good three-point shooters, but Napier carries a much heavier load for his team, playing more minutes, being the team’s leading scorer, and as a senior and leader. He is capable of splitting double teams, so Villanova may actually be best served letting Arcidiacono chase him one-on-one and try and limit what the rest of the team can do offensively.
Connecticut Notes: Under second year coach Kevin Ollie, a former UConn player, the Huskies have thrived. They finished third in the inaugural season of the AAC, and advanced to their conference championship game before falling to Louisville. Connecticut prides itself on tough defense, and they are quick. They were top 50 in the NCAA in steals, blocks, opponents points per game, and opponents field goal percentage. While Napier carries the scoring load, the Huskies do have other capable scorers, notably guard Ryan Boatright and 6’9″ forward DeAndre Daniels, each of whom score more than 12 points per game. Now in his junior season, Daniels has turned himself into a very capable three-point shooter, while Boatright has gotten to the free throw line 4.5 times per game.
Villanova Notes: JayWright should be considered one of the best coaches in the entire nation. Each year he adapts his strategy to his roster, rather than conforming his players to his style. During the Wildcats Elite Eight run in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Wright utilized a four guard lineup to allow his best players to be on the court at the same time. Instead of worrying about being undersized, he forced opponents to adapt to his quicker team. This season, Wright has run a more conventional starting five, and a rather large starting five at that. The shortest player in the starting line-up of Villanova’s second round match-up with Milwaukee was the 6’3″ Ryan Arcidiacono, while the rest of his starers were 6’6″ or taller. They will loom over UConn’s guards.
Prediction: Villanova is the favorite because they had a more consistent season. While both teams played and defeated a number of NCAA Tournament teams this year, and each had only one bad loss, Villanova had a much stronger RPI. They physically outmatch UConn, and at the same time can even match one of UConn’s strengths in their three-point shooting. Villanova wins against their former conference rival, 75-68.
Commentary by Brian Moore