Even on the sidelines, coaching a tight game, Jay Wright caught it.
Connecticut had it going for a little stretch. Inside the Wells Fargo Center, there was more than a faint sound, a familiar droning chant, UConn ... Huskies.
“Brought back memories," Wright said later Saturday after his team survived, 61-55. “Like it was their arena. I forgot about that. They always travel well. They always bring people down here. In the old days, every game was a sellout because they would bring three or four thousand and we would have 16,000."
“Hard-played, a Big Ea--” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, cutting himself off before he got to the st. “Well, we’re not in the Big East yet. Obviously, it had that Big East feel to it.”
Officially, the visiting team is back in the Big East next season. Unofficially, this was every bit a Big East game, little pretty about it, late plays deciding it.
UConn’s return to the Big East, while orphaning its football program to an unknowable future, was acknowledgment that things weren’t the same in Storrs without the opportunity to get to Madison Square Garden for the league tournament and the rest of the Big East trappings.
The Big East welcomes UConn back, but you can’t argue the Big East needed UConn, not with those national titles won by the group from the Main Line. If you look at how the whole realignment shakeout played out in recent years, you could argue Villanova was one of the luckiest and UConn may have topped the list for unlucky.
Not arguing that alternative scenarios would have been awful for Villanova. Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart and all those guys still could have showed up on the Main Line, that Kris Jenkins shot still could have dropped. But there was a time when it seemed Villanova would have to move up to big-time football to ensure the school didn’t drop to mid-major status in hoops.
The lucky part maybe was how Fox Sports got started and needed programming, and the Big East fit it perfectly, and this new league full of hoop schools got to have the Big East name and the Garden tournament by paying off the football schools that didn’t have the heritage anyway.
UConn, for all its past success, should have ended up in a league like the ACC, but when the ACC didn’t see it that way, the Huskies were in the AAC, a good football league and good basketball league, but without the rivalries that sustain college hoops. (A personal belief: Boston College should have wanted UConn to join the ACC, to keep a New England rivalry alive, instead of B.C.'s acting as a distant ACC northern outpost.)
Saturday’s UConn chant didn’t last long. This was a Villanova crowd, and the students were all inside, and the place got loud for the home team. Attendance: 16,723.
“Amazing atmosphere in here," Hurley said.
“Great college basketball atmosphere," Wright echoed. “It was cool to be a part of it."
Villanova might not have survived if the Wildcats had not gone to a zone defense late, since UConn was getting to the rim, outscoring Villanova in the paint, 36-12.
It’s one thing to try a zone. As Wright pointed out, it still has to work.
At the other end, Hurley pointed out his team is still in the “pick your poison” phase of things, and Jermaine Samuels’ taking threes was a poison they decided to live with, and Samuels made them pay, 4-for-6, including a couple of late daggers, plus a drive for a three-point play.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl added crucial offensive rebounds and steely free-throw shooting. Collin Gillespie did all sorts of Collin Gillespie things.
“Gillespie, the way he holds up the standard of their program with his leadership and toughness, it’s impressive," Hurley said.
When both schools had it going, this game was as good as the Big East regular season gets. Shabazz Napier knocking down a game-winning 29-footer in overtime with 0.6 seconds left. Or the time Villanova took out the top-ranked Huskies. Or go back to Kerry Kittles and Ray Allen, the blizzard game up in Storrs.
“There’s just a physical and mental toughness about both teams," Wright said. “It’s always been that way -- that leads to ugly battles, but Northeast basketball people love them."
Hurley made clear, this is Year 2 of a process.
“Where we want to get to -- where Villanova is," Hurley said.
He also made this clear: The Big East will notice UConn’s return.
“People better get us now," Hurley said at the end of his press session. “That’s all. You better get us now. It’s coming."
Hurley noted he was not talking specifically about Villanova.
“Don’t take that out of context," Hurley said. “Thank you."
The context was just right. The Big East will be better for UConn’s return. Saturday was a coming attraction, the kind where you feel like you’ve seen the movie already.