From the start of the Villanova season, Jay Wright has looked for openings where he could give his newest players in the program more opportunities to gain valuable experience off the bench.
However, given the difficulty of the Wildcats’ non-conference schedule, Wright hasn’t been able to execute the idea as planned. The Cats have had some battles in the last six games that has prevented the coach from regularly going beyond eight players.
In his team’s 74-71 loss to Kansas last Saturday before a deafening crowd at Allen Fieldhouse, Wright played his bench a season-low 29 minutes, and the trio of Joe Cremo, Jermaine Samuels and Cole Swider combined for four shots, one rebound and zero points.
Villanova (8-4) will finish up its non-conference schedule Saturday at Madison Square Garden against Connecticut (9-3), an old rival from the earlier days of the Big East. It should be another tight contest that could see Wright going with a short bench once again.
“I think in the Kansas game, it was more on me trying to stick with veteran players in that environment,” he said Friday after practice. “I didn’t really give them as much an opportunity. It’s something we need to develop over the season, a balance of trying to win games with veterans and trying to get the new guys experience.
“There’s nothing better than game-time experience. So it’s just something we, as a coaching staff, have to balance throughout the year. We definitely need the help and we’re going to need it in this game.”
The bench has had its moments. Samuels has averaged 13 points in back-to-back wins over Temple and St. Joseph’s, with Cremo averaging 11.5 in the same two games.
The playing time wasn’t as abundant against Kansas where Wright went with just three reserves for the fourth time this season. Samuels had four different appearances on the court in the second half, one of 48 seconds, another of 26.
“In that game, just a lot of things were happening at once – fouls, shots, concepts, just a lot of things going on,” Samuels said. “I’ve got to be more focused, pay more attention to detail. That’s what I need to do.”
The bench will need to step up in Saturday’s game against the Huskies. In his first year as UConn head coach, Dan Hurley has his team playing a pressing defense that has forced an average of 17.0 turnovers, and scores more than 20 points per game off turnovers.
Offensively, UConn’s top four scorers are all guards who average in double figures, led by senior Jalen Adams at 17.3 points per game.
“They have incredible speed at the guard position that we hadn’t faced,” Wright said. “They have four guards that are really quick with the ball creating their own shot and creating shots for others, plus an up-tempo defensive pressure that always gives us trouble. I think they’re the two main things, but also a team that is very good on the offensive glass that we’ve got to be concerned about.”
Two of the Huskies’ three losses have been to ranked teams, Iowa and Florida State.
Senior forward Eric Paschall is familiar with Hurley’s style, having played against Rhode Island when Hurley coached there and Paschall competed for Fordham.
“Coach Hurley does a great job getting his players to play hard, firing his players up, allowing them to play with confidence and also coach them,” Paschall said. “I know it’s going to be a very good game and I know he’ll have them playing very hard.”