Biggest Questions for UConn vs. Villanova in Round-of-32 NCAA Tournament Tilt
Former bitter longtime conference rivals will meet on Saturday night for a chance to advance to the East Region Sweet 16, and you can bet the game and rivalry will be as intense as ever.
The No. 7-seeded UConn Huskies (27-8) and No. 2-seeded Villanova Wildcats (29-4) each won their second-round contests, but they did it in very different ways.
The Huskies trailed for much of the night against No. 10-seeded St. Joseph's, largely due to the struggles of stud guard Shabazz Napier, before coming back in the second half, forcing overtime and pulling away in the extra frame for an 89-81 victory.
The Wildcats struggled a tad in the first 20 minutes against No. 15-seeded Milwaukee, but they finished strong, outscoring the Panthers 46-30 in the second half to secure a 73-53 win.
This game has the very real feel of a pick 'em and very few people would be surprised by the final result, regardless of who emerges with the victory.
That's why in a game as close as this one figures to be, the details matter.
These are the five X-factors that will determine if it's UConn or Villanova heading off on Saturday night to the Sweet 16.
Can Shabazz Napier Do It Again?
Napier was dismal in the first half, fought in the second and took over in overtime of the Huskies' 89-81 second-round victory over St. Joseph's on Thursday night in Buffalo.
The senior guard, who was an important bench player on UConn's last national title team in 2011, is vital to his team's success going forward and especially against a Villanova team with quality guards of its own.
Napier stuffed the stat sheet against the Hawks, finishing with 24 points (19 after the half), eight boards, six assists and three steals.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story.
Napier came up big when it mattered the most, putting up 10 in the second half to help get his team to overtime and then adding another nine in the extra frame to seal the comeback win.
Obviously the Huskies would prefer Napier not starting slow against Villanova, requiring another comeback against a much tougher opponent.
The Huskies need to him to be the player he was against St. Joe's down the stretch, and if he is, they’ll be very tough to beat.
How Do the Huskies Handle Jayvaughn Pinkston?
Jayvaughn Pinkston presents a pretty large potential matchup problem for the Huskies.
The forward, who is listed as 6'7" and 260 pounds (if you believe that), has a wide body that he uses to bang around in the paint. DeAndre Daniels will likely split time guarding him, but he's outweighed by somewhere in the vicinity of 60-70 pounds. And Daniels isn't known as the strongest or physical player to begin with.
Pinkston played just 22 minutes in the Wildcats' second-round victory over No. 15-seeded Milwaukee on Thursday, but in that time he did some serious damage.
With 13 points, eight boards (including a couple on the offensive glass) and three blocks, the Panthers weren't able to find any way to slow him down. The Huskies are going to need to if they want to book their ticket to the Sweet 16.
St. Joseph's had some success against UConn in the post on Thursday, and they weren't sporting a traditional forward with as much talent as Pinkston.
Shutting him down needs to be UConn's No. 1 priority.
Will DeAndre Daniels Step Up Again for the Huskies?
Daniels should be nicknamed "the enigma."
How else can you explain his ability to look like a top-tier forward one night and a ghost the next?
That said, Daniels deserves a great deal of credit for his performance Thursday night against St. Joe's. With Napier struggling, the 6'9" forward upped his game, contributing 18 points and four rebounds—including two big threes—to help keep his team in the contest early.
That's the type of thing you need from a player come this time of the year. Sometimes your stars struggle, and you need the secondary scorers to up their games and make up the difference.
Daniels certainly did that on Thursday against the Hawks, and if he can stay consistent against Villanova, that would be a huge boost for his team.
If not, it could be the end of a potentially promising road.
Who Will Compete with the Wildcats on the Boards?
This is going to start—if it hasn't already—sounding like a broken record.
UConn needs to be—at the very least—competitive on the boards in this game. Villanova has a couple of big bodies down low who are capable of snagging near double-digit numbers on the glass, and the Huskies will need to play tough and deny them second-chance opportunities.
Villanova out-rebounded Milwaukee 46-37 in their second-round game, which really isn't hugely impressive given how bad the Panthers were on the glass this season.
The Huskies, on the other hand, had a 34-33 edge over St. Joe's, including 12-9 on the offensive glass.
Rebounding is going to be a huge concern for UConn coming into this contest. The Wildcats have a couple of huge bodies—Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu—who can absolutely dominate on the glass.
Pinkston averaged eight boards per game this season, and he snagged that exact number against Milwaukee. Ochefu averages over six boards a game, and despite only playing 22 minutes, exceeded that with nine boards against the Panthers.
The Huskies need to find ways to limit both of them and get their fair share of rebounds. In that regard, Amida Brimah—a 7'0" freshman center—could play a pivotal role.
Brimah only averaged 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds on the season, but he chipped in a huge nine points and eight boards against St. Joe's. That included a crucial three-point play with less than 40 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.
If he can step up again, that would be huge for the Huskies.
Are the Huskies over Their First-Game Jitters?
It had been over two years since the Huskies played an NCAA tournament game, and their last run in March Madness ended quickly in 2012 with a second-round defeat in the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game to Iowa State.
Only three players remain on the roster from the 2011 national championship team—Napier, Tyler Olander and Niels Giffey—and the rest of the team has never been this far in the NCAA tournament as Huskies.
UConn played like a team with plenty of jitters in the first half against St. Joe's. The Huskies didn't shoot the ball particularly well, didn't get to the line much and trailed by as many as nine points.
No disrespect to St. Joseph's but they're no Villanova, and UConn can’t expect to fall behind and be able to make another comeback.
The Huskies cannot afford to get off to such a slow start again. All the tournament jitters should be out of the way now, and they should be pumped for a chance to face their former longtime conference rivals with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
This is one of those games and one of those picks that you can genuinely call a tossup.
UConn is a team built around their guards, and it has two very good ones in Napier and Ryan Boatright. But barring the continued strong play of Daniels or the further emergence of Brimah, Villanova is just too physical and strong for it in the front court.
In a close game, which this will be, it's often rebounding and second-chance points that make all the difference. On that score, it should be "Advantage: Wildcats."
Pinkston and Ochefo are handfuls on the glass, and they should be big, and physical enough to knock the Huskies big men off the ball.
The Huskies' biggest advantage is their guards, and even on that, Villanova has two solid ones of its own in James Bell and Darrun Hilliard II.
UConn can certainly win this one, but it'll take Napier playing lights-out basketball. No streakiness. No inconsistency. Just solid basketball from tip to final whistle.
That's certainly a distinct possibility. If he goes off, the Huskies can definitely win. But Villanova just has the more solid overall team. It'll win a nail-biter over its old rivals and advance to the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Villanova 71, UConn 66