Well, this is it. This is what UConn fans have been waiting for since the team’s historic 2014 season. It’s no longer a question of “will the Huskies make the tournament?” but of “how high of a seed can the Huskies get?” Tuesday is the culmination of all of the team’s AAC struggles and the climb back, where No. 21 UConn takes on No. 8 Villanova to try to add another impressive win to their resume in front of a sold-out XL Center crowd.
UConn (19-7, 10-5 Big East) is in the midst of a hot stretch, having won four of their last five contests. Each one of those games has been against a top 60 team in the country, according to the KenPom ratings. With the Villanova game, the Huskies are set to complete a three-game home stretch, started off with wins at Gampel Pavilion over Seton Hall and Xavier. While this team is already a lock to make the NCAA tournament, a home win over powerhouse Nova could give them a massive NCAA seeding boost and a ton of confidence heading into the Big East Tournament.
This week, UConn forward Adama Sanogo made the Big East Honor Roll once again, this time for his heroics in the Huskies’ big 2-0 week. He averaged 17.5 points and 12.5 rebounds over the span in a showing of pure domination. The only time where he looked off of his game was the second half of the Xavier game, when the defense specifically stopped the ball from getting inside to Sanogo. The big man has been on fire recently and looks to continue his production against the Wildcats defense.
Another player who has been doing well lately is graduate student RJ Cole. The veteran is averaging 17 points per game over his last four contests, scoring 16 points in the team’s latest bout with Xavier. Cole was wildly impressive, taking over the game for the Huskies when they needed him the most. Expect him to continue his leadership role and help out in a big way on Tuesday.
The third member of UConn’s “big three” is undoubtedly Tyrese Martin. It was a sight to see for Huskies fans on Wednesday against Seton Hall, where Martin, Cole and Sanogo all put up at least 15 points. Saturday against Xavier saw the same offensive output from Cole and Sanogo, but Martin struggled, going just 2-for-8 for six points. Despite this, he was able to impact the game in other ways, notably on the boards, grabbing 11 rebounds alongside three assists and a steal.
“You can survive one of your all-conference level guys not having his typical offensive game when a guy like Tyler [Polley], a guy like Jordan [Hawkins] steps up and they give you [a combined] 23 points off the bench, and then you play elite defense and outrebound your opponent by 16,” head coach Dan Hurley said postgame.
Even if Martin can’t get going offensively against Villanova, the Huskies will undoubtedly need his impact on the glass. UConn leads the Big East in offensive and total rebounds per game, as well as rebounding margin. The Wildcats, however, are an average board-grabbing team, landing sixth in the conference in rebound margin. If the Huskies can win the battle on the glass in convincing fashion like they did against Xavier on Saturday (+16), it will be very difficult to lose.
Villanova (21-6, 14-3 Big East) have enjoyed a very successful season to date. While they are not in first in the conference, they have toppled top dogs Providence once on the road and will face them at home later in the year. The powerhouse team of the Big East, this team is never out of a game, regardless of score. Their only non-conference losses have come at the hands of teams currently in the top 13 of the KenPom ratings, and their Big East losses are few and far between.
The Wildcats’ trademark win may have come just last week, when they came into the Dunkin Donuts Center and beat up on the then-No. 8 team in the country, the Providence Friars. The atmosphere was loud, and despite the Friars’ best efforts, Villanova was able to walk away with a win behind Big East Preseason Player of the Year Collin Gillespie’s 33 point performance. XL can get as loud as humanly possible on Tuesday, but know that Nova will still bring it as always.
“Our first couple years, we didn’t have much of a chance to beat them, they were significantly better than us. They’ve played better than us, they’ve had a better season than us to this point, but now we have a chance to play them at home,” Hurley said. “We saw what they did at Providence, you’ve got to play at a high level… We’ve earned the right on Tuesday night to play one of the games of the night in college basketball.”
One guy to also look out for on the Wildcats is forward Eric Dixon. While bigs Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley got into foul trouble early in the two teams’ last matchup, Dixon was able to eat down low, getting 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting. Since that matchup, the sophomore has been able to reach double-digit scoring in four of his last five appearances and will look to continue his successes on Tuesday.
One thing worth noting is the status of Gillespie and Justin Moore. Villanova’s two leading scorers, respectively, are currently at about 80% healthy as both are dealing with injuries. The duo will most likely play, but in terms of their productivity on Tuesday, it is worth keeping an eye on them.
The game will take place at 8:00 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford, and the game will be broadcast on FS1. Besides the Auburn game, this could amount to the most definable win on the Huskies’ tournament resume come Selection Sunday.
“Sticking to our identity, playing defense first, and everything else will come,” said Cole on what needs to happen to beat the Wildcats. “Villanova’s a great team, but we’re a good team too, so we’ll see them on Tuesday.”