5 Things We Learned from UConn's Win over Villanova

Kevin McRaeFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

5 Things We Learned from UConn's Win over Villanova

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    UConn is heading back to familiar territory.

    The No. 7 Huskies advanced to Madison Square Garden and the Sweet 16 on Saturday night, knocking off their former Big East rival and East Region No. 2 seed Villanova, 77-65, at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

    UConn is a perennial basketball power, but it is playing in its first NCAA tournament in two years. The Huskies were banned for academic reasons last season yet have justified the opinions of those who felt they could be a dark-horse contender in this year's field.

    After dispatching of the Wildcats, the Huskies will face No. 3 Iowa State or No. 6 North Carolina for a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four. 

    We learned a lot about Kevin Ollie's team in Saturday's victory.

    These are the five most important lessons from the Huskies' victory over Villanova. 

Shabazz Napier Is Elite

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    When Shabazz Napier plays his game with consistency, he's one of the best players in college basketball.

    Period. End of discussion.

    He played his best game, maybe of the entire season, on Saturday night, keying the Huskies victory with 25 points, five rebounds and three assists on 9-of-13 shooting from the field. 

    Those numbers are impressive enough as it is, but they look even more so when you consider that Napier only saw eight minutes of action in the first half after finding his way into early foul trouble.

    The reigning American Athletic Conference player of the year scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half—where he also missed some time after picking up a third foul and later hurting his right leg—and was beyond a shadow of a doubt the best player on the floor. 

    In two tournament games last week, Napier proved that he can be clutch in big spots. He struggled in the first half against both St. Joseph's and Villanova but came up huge when it mattered most, dominating the closing minutes of both games.

    That's the stuff of an elite player, and there should be little doubt that Napier is certainly that.

UConn's Bench Can Step Up

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    Napier picked up his second foul of the game with just under eight minutes gone in the first half. By that point, he had already given his team four points and two rebounds, but he was forced to go to the bench in order to avoid picking up a critical third foul before the break. 

    He didn't return to the game until after halftime.

    Just seconds after he left the court, his completely out-of-sync Huskies teammates saw themselves fall behind 19-9 with 11:31 to play in the first half.

    Things appeared to be going south in a hurry, and with Napier sitting helplessly on the bench, the reserves were called on to step in and keep the ship afloat.

    And they did more than that.

    Terrence Samuel and Lasan Kromah combined for nine of the Huskies' final 16 points, leading them on a 16-5 run to close out the half and enter the break with a 25-24 lead. 

    For the game, Kromah finished with 12, and Samuel was even more impressive with 11 points.

    Samuel, a freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., only saw five minutes of action against St. Joe's and averaged only 1.8 points per game for the season.

    Talk about stepping up your game in a big way when your team needed it.

    Overall, the Huskies bench players outscored their Villanova counterparts by a 26-5 margin, and that was the difference in the game.

Ollie's Huskies Can Weather the Storm

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    Generally speaking, you don't want to fall too far behind in the early going of NCAA tournament games. Every team you'll see in March Madness has earned its way there, and most of them won't allow you to spot them too many points and come back.

    UConn fell behind early against St. Joe's, and it did so again in the early going against Villanova. 

    If you're a fan, these types of starts may not be good for your ticker or any small items sitting on your coffee table that may be launched as projectiles across the room, but the Huskies have shown an ability to respond and find ways to win.

    A lot of the credit for that type of confidence belongs to their head coach Kevin Ollie.

    Ollie, who took the reins of his alma mater last season after the sudden retirement of legendary coach Jim Calhoun, has proved he knows a thing or two about coaching in his two seasons at the helm. He's infused his team with a certain level of grit and toughness—hallmarks of his playing career—that make the Huskies very tough to hold down.

    They always believe they can win the game, and even when things start out rough, they have the ability to claw their way back into the contest.

    That's exactly what happened on Saturday night against Villanova, and much of the credit for that attitude belongs to their second-year coach.

It'll Take Serious Guard Play to Take Down the Huskies

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    We've known for a while now that the Huskies are built around their guard play.

    Napier sucks up most of the air in the room during that conversation, but he has several backcourt teammates who complement him very well. Any team that has designs on knocking off the Huskies needs to hold UConn's guards in check. 

    Even taking Napier out of the equation, the Huskies got 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists and six steals out of Kromah, Samuel and Ryan Boatright

    And they got them in a very balanced fashion—Kromah had 12 and Samuel and Boatright had 11—proving that the Huskies aren't just a one-man show. Having that one man around certainly helps, but even when he's not, other players can pick up the slack.

    It's true that those numbers, particularly from Kromah and Samuel, are enhanced because of increased playing time during Napier's absence.

    But that shouldn't diminish their importance. If anything, they deserve even greater credit for making big plays in big spots with the big man out. 

    It goes to show you: Even with Napier on the bench, you can't sleep on the backcourt.

    UConn has lots of guys who can make you pay.

This Team Is a Bona Fide National Title Contender

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    It's called the Sweet 16 for a reason.

    Every season, more than 350 college basketball programs begin the quest to be crowned national champions. 

    Many have no hope at all or slim chances, but a select few get to call themselves bona fide national title contenders. 

    And after Saturday night's tilt with Villanova, UConn is part of that group.

    The Huskies were considered something of a dark-horse contender to make some noise in the East Region and possibly bust a few brackets along the way. 

    But after back-to-back comeback wins, UConn has established itself as no worse than one of the 16 best teams in college basketball this season. 

    And the Huskies have an excellent chance of continuing their drive to Arlington and the Final Four when they meet Iowa State or North Carolina on Friday at Madison Square Garden.

    The Cyclones will be without their third-leading scorer Georges Niang—who broke his foot in a second-round win over North Carolina Central on Friday—and the Tar Heels are wildly inconsistent.

    It takes six consecutive wins for a team to cut down the nets.

    The Huskies have checked two off that list. They're a third of the way home, and regardless of what anyone says or thinks, they're in the hunt for a national title.