It’s been eight years since someone was last able to write the words: UConn is playing in the Big East Conference Tournament. And not only is UConn playing in it, but the Huskies are arguably the favorites.
“It’s the best conference tournament in the country, in terms of excitement, the venue and the energy in the building with the Big East teams,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “The Big East tournament is the best conference tournament, and I don’t think that’s debatable.”
UConn is the No. 3 seed, but the No. 1 seeded Villanova Wildcats have a couple huge question marks surrounding them.
For Villanova, it’s the injury bug. The Wildcats will be without senior, second-leading scorer and Big East Co-Player of the Year Collin Gillespie after he suffered a torn MCL. When UConn played Villanova earlier this season, Gillespie gave the Huskies nightmares. He scored 20 points, including a pair of essentially game-clinching threes in the final minutes when UConn was threatening.
The Wildcats are also very likely going to be without sophomore and third-leading scorer Justin Moore, who is dealing with an ankle sprain.
Creighton, the No. 2 seed, is a narrow favorite in most sportsbooks, but UConn has undoubtedly been the hottest team in the conference heading into the tournament.
The Huskies have won five of their last six since, including their last four, since James Bouknight returned from injury. Their only loss? Villanova, who at the time was at full power.
Since Bouknight returned, he’s gone on an absolute tear, averaging 20 points on about 50% shooting from the field while adding on nearly six rebounds per game to boot.
“We were the first team in The Garden today, so as we were walking in the lights were dimmed, and as we literally walked on the court the lights came on, and the energy level changed. James let out some type of a noise,” Hurley said. “You sense with him that he knows what he’s done for the program. … he also knows that he wants to try to turn the end of this season into part of his legacy.”
He even did most of this damage without a consistent three-point shot, as he shot 5-for-19 from deep through his first five games back before going 5-for-9 in UConn’s final game of the season.
If Bouknight can keep that shooting form, it’s hard to imagine any team beating the Huskies. Even though he was not named one of the three Big East Conference Co-Players of the Year, Hurley believes he is the best player in the league.
“James has a chance this week to make his chance for being the best player in the league,” Hurley said. “I don’t think there’s much doubt in terms of who’s the most talented, best player in the league, is James. If you choose not to vote for him because he didn’t play in enough games because he was hurt, I get that, and I understand that.”
UConn will be playing DePaul in the second round after the Huskies received a first-round bye and DePaul pulled off a major upset over Providence on Wednesday.
“We’ve taken a big step this year,” Hurley said. “Proud of that, but let’s take an even bigger step. Let’s take a bigger step as a program. As a program, we’ve come such a long way, so let’s try to do more.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. and the game can be watched on FS1.