UConn To Face Villlanova In Former Big East Reunion
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Villanova coach Jay Wright is confident it won’t take the opening 15 minutes for his players to gain respect for their next NCAA tournament opponent.
Unlike Milwaukee, Connecticut is no stranger to the Wildcats in a round of 32 matchup pitting two former Big East rivals on Saturday night.
“UConn, they know,” Wright said Friday, a day after Villanova overcame a slow start before coasting to a 73-53 win against Milwaukee.
“These guys have been recruited by UConn. They’ve watched UConn. So I think our guys are very dialed in because they have great respect for the tradition, but also the current team.”
That’s a welcome switch following Villanova’s tentative start against Milwaukee. The Wildcats went 0 for 12 in 3-point attempts in the first half and trailed 23-18 with 4:09 left in the period before finding their groove.
The Huskies (27-8), the East Region’s seventh seed, have the attention of the No. 2-seeded Wildcats (29-4).
“You want to play against the best,” Villanova senior swingman James Bell said. “We have great teams in our league now. But Syracuse, Connecticut, they brought an extra edge to our league that you kind of miss. It’s just great playing them again.”
The former Big East is enjoying a reunion in Buffalo, a year after the powerhouse conference was pulled apart by defections and realignment.
Villanova is still a member, and UConn has switched to the American Athletic Conference.
The two most recently met as conference rivals a year ago, when Villanova beat UConn 70-61. This will be their first tournament meeting in a series that dates to 1941, with the Wildcats holding a 33-30 edge.
The Huskies, however, have won four of the past five meetings and 18 of 26.
“You feel familiarized with them,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a basketball game. I don’t care what league we’re playing against. We’ve got to go out there and play.”
Ollie is a newcomer to the series as a head coach. He’s in his second season since taking over after Jim Calhoun stepped down as coach because of health issues.
The Huskies won in Ollie’s tournament debut, and a year after the program was barred from postseason play because of academic sanctions.
Guard Shabazz Napier _ a holdover from Calhoun’s 2011 national championship team _ scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in an 89-81 win over Saint Joseph’s.
Here are five things to look out for in a matchup of two programs that have combined for 103 victories in 66 tournament appearances (UConn is 53-29, Villanova is 50-32):
WILD-CLANK? Villanova is suddenly struggling to find its range from behind the 3-point line.
After closing the regular season hitting 36.4 percent (285 of 782) from behind the arc, Villanova has combined to go 8 of 42 in its past two games. Bell is struggling in particular, having hit two of 23 attempts over the past five games.
“We’ve just got to find the open ones,” Bell said, noting he and his teammates have been forcing attempts. “We’ve got to make the extra pass, get our teammates better shots.”
Ollie isn’t taking the Wildcats’ struggles for granted, saying it’s important the Huskies continue to make it difficult on defense.
“It’s not like we’re going to sit on their shooters,” Ollie said. “We’re going to be right in their face. We want them to continue to struggle.”
IN TRANSITION: Wright’s biggest concern about the Wildcats’ 3-point woes is not on offense, but on defense because of Connecticut’s ability to translate misses into transition points.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to shoot as poorly as we did last night and keep a Connecticut team down to 53 points,” Wright said. “Against Connecticut, that’s going to be Napier and those guys out in transition, and that’s going to be trouble.”
SHABAZZ IN THE CLUTCH: Napier sealed UConn’s most recent win against Villanova by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal a 73-70 overtime win on Feb. 20, 2012.
“The first thing is I remember the commentator,” Napier said, referring to Bill Raftery, who called the game. “After I hit the shot, he said, `Onions.”’
BIG-MAN BRIMAH: Ollie was pleased Huskies freshman center Amida Brimah ignored his advice after putting back a rebound with 39 seconds left against Saint Joseph’s. Fouled on the shot, Brimah completed the three-point play that tied the game at 70 and led to overtime.
“I was screaming: `Throw the ball out.’ And I’m glad he didn’t,” Ollie said. “I’m so glad he didn’t pay attention to me.”
APPROACHING 30: Villanova is one victory from hitting 30, which would match the school record set in 2008-09, when the Wildcats lost to North Carolina in a national semifinal game.