Well, there it is. The first blowout loss of the season. After enjoying one of the most successful starts to the year since their last NCAA Championship season in 2014, the UConn men’s basketball team has come crashing back to Earth, falling to No. 12 Villanova 85-74. The loss marks the second straight for the team, and the first of the season decided by more than four points.
“This is a valley for us. We haven’t played well. We have to have guys step up. We have to coach better. We have to play better,” head coach Dan Hurley said postgame.
While the Huskies got the game within seven midway through the second half, this game was really put away early on in the first, when both Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley picked up two fouls apiece just five minutes into the contest. Hurley, who is a big advocate of benching guys with two fouls before the half, was a bit more lenient with his rule today, but the duo only saw a combined 20 minutes before the half.
The foul trouble of the two big men, coupled with a late scratch in bench forward Akok Akok, paved the way for the Wildcats’ Eric Dixon to have a breakout day. The redshirt sophomore might not have been the tallest guy on the floor, but he punished the UConn defenders down low. The early foul trouble might’ve gotten the 6-foot-8-inch wing cooking, but even when Sanogo and Whaley were aggressive, he was able to find the basket. Dixon finished the day with a career-high 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting, four assists and 12 rebounds.
While Dixon had a career day, Wildcat Collin Gillespie put up similar numbers offensively in what was just another game for the Big East Preseason Player of the Year. The guard finished third amongst all scorers with 19 points, keeping the Huskies on their toes with his crafty moves and perimeter shots. Gillespie went down with an ankle injury late in the second, but by that point the contest was all but over.
“I just thought we were soft on the backboard, we didn’t look like the elite defensive team that we expect to be. Obviously it’s hard to win on the road and you’re not going to win on the road if you don’t pack your defense.”
The defensive struggles all game, coupled with a slow start offensively, really hindered the Huskies in this matchup. After the under-16 media timeout, Villanova enjoyed an 11-4 run in which UConn didn’t record a field goal. By the end of the first half, Connecticut was shooting 36.4% from the field and 40% from beyond the arc, a step up from some of their recent performances, but with seven turnovers and 45 points allowed at that point, they trailed by 11 at the break.
Out of the break, the team shot significantly better (60% for the half), largely thanks to the emergence of Sanogo. The big man didn’t even attempt a shot in the first half, but finished the contest with 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting. While it’s worth noting that Sanogo can score against tough teams like the Wildcats, he needs to step up more in the first half.
In the last three games, the guy on a top-10 list for the title of best center in the nation has had only four points total in the opening period. For a team that is in the midst of a crucial stretch, that simply cannot be the early production from one of the top scoring options. People are wondering why UConn can’t get things going early as of late. Look no further than the focal point of their offensive production. Once Sanogo gets clicking, as we’ve seen time and again, the whole offense follows suit.
Senior guard RJ Cole had another consistent day, finishing with a game-high 25 points, four assists and two rebounds. His most notable basket may have been to close out the opening session, as he nailed a half-court buzzer beater with ease. Like the rest of the team, Cole turned the ball over quite a bit with five TOs to his name.
One of the biggest positives from the game for UConn had to be the bounce-back performance of Tyrese Martin. The third-leading scorer for the Huskies, Martin finished with above 50% shooting and double-digit points for the first time in the last three games. UConn is surely hoping his short cold streak has come to an end, as they’ll need his crafty scoring down the stretch.
Forward Andre Jackson has been going through a bit of a rough patch as of late, and those struggles didn’t stop on Saturday. The starter finished the day with one point on 0-for-6 shooting, two turnovers and a game-worst -17 plus or minus. Since the first DePaul game, Jackson is shooting just 22% from the field. While he isn’t the main scoring option on this team, those numbers have to improve soon.
Despite this being the worst loss of the year in terms of the program, the Huskies will be alright. There’s a reason Villanova has held a share of the Big East regular season crown seven of the last eight years – it’s an outstanding program. As Hurley has said all year, conference road wins are the toughest to come by, especially against such a highly ranked opponent.
The KenPom ratings still have the Huskies as a top-20 team in the country, and Big East games like DePaul’s shorthanded road win over Xavier Saturday remind fans that the Big East is one of the most competitive conferences in the country. There’s still a lot of time left in the season, and UConn, a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, has multiple opportunities to get quality wins under its belt.
“We have a very good team, we just lost a game on the road where they kicked our [butt],” said Hurley. “We’ve got to be ready to go on Tuesday and go get a win on Tuesday.”
The Huskies are slated to take on No. 24 Marquette on Tuesday at the XL Center. Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on FS1.