Villanova and Connecticut played 59 games as Big East rivals before the Huskies moved on when the conference decided it wanted to get out of the football business and reorganize.
However, after eight years, and two postponements this season because of coronavirus issues, the 10th-ranked Wildcats and UConn are ready to square off again Saturday as conference foes, meeting Saturday at Finneran Pavilion.
Actually, the Wildcats (13-3, 8-2) and the Huskies (10-5, 7-5) have played four times since their last Big East game on Feb. 16, 2013. UConn captured a second-round victory in the 2014 NCAA Tournament on its way to the national championship. Villanova defeated the Huskies in each of the last three seasons, in Hartford, Madison Square Garden, and Wells Fargo Center.
“We really wanted to do it out of respect for the old Big East,” ‘Nova coach Jay Wright said Friday of keeping the rivalry alive. “UConn was such a huge part of the building of the Big East, so we wanted to play them and Syracuse mostly out of respect for their programs and out of respect for the old Big East.
“Now having them back in there is pretty cool. You can’t go backwards. You’ve got to always look forward. But I think they bring a great deal to the swag to this conference going forward.”
The Wildcats will be catching the Huskies on the rise. Since losing four of five, UConn has won its last two games and welcomed back preseason All-Big East guard James Bouknight in Tuesday night’s 73-61 win over Providence after an eight-game absence resulting from left elbow surgery.
Bouknight came off the bench against the Friars and scored 18 points in 24 minutes, and the Wildcats know they’ll be in for a tough time with the 6-foot-5 sophomore.
“There’s only a few players in our conference that, whatever the play is, the play can break down, you can guard everything, but he’ll just go 1-on-1 and make a tough shot,” Wright said. “There are a lot of guys that take tough shots, he makes tough shots.”
“He’s a great player, very dynamic, can do a little bit of everything,” Villanova point guard Collin Gillespie said. “He can get his own shot off, he can get guys involved, and he’s really athletic. So we know how great of a player he is just from watching him this year and playing against him last year. We’ve seen his improvement.”
The Wildcats have been idle since suffering their worst loss of the season, 86-70, at Creighton last Saturday. After inquiring with the Big East about a possible midweek game that did not occur, Wright hoped a full week of practice would get his team right, especially at the defensive end.
“Every team you play against is going through the same challenges of, where do we spend our [practice] time,” Wright said. “We’re trying to figure out what areas can we be efficient because we only have a certain amount of time left and we’ve got to pick our spots.
“I hope we got a little bit better defensively after this week but we’ll find out. We’ll get tested for sure” Saturday.
In conference games, the Wildcats are No. 1 in scoring (78.2 points per game), three-point shooting (39.4%) and free throws (82.2%), but they are last in field-goal percentage defense (47.6%) and three-point defense (40.5%). The Huskies are first in points allowed (65.5), offensive rebounds (12.3 per game) and blocked shots (5.1).
Rebounding will be important. Villanova has won the rebounding battle just three times in 10 Big East games, and the Huskies have outrebounded opponents by an average of 4.6 per game.
“It’s a priority for us,” said Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the Cats’ top rebounder. “It’s at the bottom of one of our pyramids, defending and rebounding. We know they’re a very physical, long, athletic team and we’re going to have to really be physical with them and be solid and get those boards.”