Huskies, Wildcats Renew Rivalry At The Big Dance
The two sides meet at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., with opening tip-off scheduled for 9:40 p.m. ET.
By the time the Huskies and Wildcats take to the court on Saturday evening, seven other games will either have drawn to a close or – in the case of the Harvard-Michigan State matchup – be approaching the final buzzer.
That leaves these two former Big East adversaries – reunited just a year after realignment put an end to a 33-year rivalry that began when the Wildcats joined the conference in 1980 – to close things out with a bang.
The two schools met five times in the Big East tournament – where the Wildcats will forever own a 3-2 edge – but this will be the first time the two have met at the big dance. Both will be hoping first time’s a charm.
Seeking only its second national title and first since 1985, Villanova (29-4) advanced to the Round of 32 with a 73-53 victory over the Horizon League’s Milwaukee on Thursday. The Wildcats struggled to begin the game and continued to struggle shooting throughout, going just 4-of-23 from beyond the arc, but managed to do enough in the second half to make the final score a respectable one.
But cracks could be seen, something that could set the alarm bells ringing for head coach Jay Wright, particularly in the wake of a shock defeat in the conference tournament against Seton Hall.
All of a sudden, those 12 wins in 13 games to close out the regular season, which proved enough to earn a No. 2 seed in the tournament, are way back in the rear view mirror and the Wildcats are looking like a team that could be caught out.
That could be good news for a Connecticut (27-8) side seeking a fourth national championship in 15 years.
After losing out to Louisville in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament, the Huskies made a winning start to the NCAA tournament, albeit by hook or by crook.
Kevin Ollie’s side was outmatched for much of the first half against No. 10 seed Saint Joseph’s in the Round of 64, but managed to hang in there despite an off night for the much-heralded Shabazz Napier. Ultimately, the game was forced into overtime where the Huskies gathered just enough separation from the Hawks to emerge with an 89-81 victory.
Like Villanova, Connecticut looked like a team that could be picked off, but with a resilient lineup and the will to win, this could be a team ready to make some noise, three years after it last made the loudest noise of all.
The one thing that could prove to be the biggest obstacle for both sides’ hopes of success is familiarity.
Just 13 months removed from their last head-to-head matchup – a 70-61 win for Villanova in Storrs, Conn. – the two sides still know each other well. That win for the Wildcats actually snapped the Huskies’ four-game winning streak in the series, but this has always been a close rivalry.
Since Villanova joined the Big East in 1980, a year after the conference was introduced, the Wildcats have built a 31-28 advantage in head-to-head matchups. What’s more, the two schools are separated by just 13 points in the overall series, an indicator of just how close these two sides are, or at least were.
The question remains then, which one knows the other best?
Connecticut has won six of the last 10 head-to-head meetings, and won the last two meetings between the sides in the Big East Conference (2004, 2002). Can the Huskies replicate that success during the big dance?
The spread opened at 3.5.
UConn (17-14-2 ATS) is in the black when it comes to covering the spread but Villanova (22-9-0 ATS) has absolutely dominated the spread. The Wildcats have covered in five of their last six, including Thursday’s win over Milwaukee. The Huskies also covered in their opening win in the tournament.
The total opened at 132.5.
Connecticut (11-22-0) has favored the under this season to the tune of 2:1. The Huskies had seen the total go under in nine straight games before Thursday’s win over Saint Joseph’s topped the bookies’ marker.
Villanova (18-12-1) has favored the over on the season, but Thursday’s 75-53 final against Milwaukee saw the total go under.
The winner of Saturday’s game will meet the winner of Sunday’s Iowa State-North Carolina matchup in the Sweet 16 round of the tournament.
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