BUFFALO, N.Y. — UConn and Villanova are no longer in the same conference, but they are not strangers. They know exactly what to expect from each other in the NCAA Tournament.
"We know it's going to be a grinding, Big East-style basketball game," UConn's Ryan Boatright said. "It's really been like that all year. SMU played like that, Cincinnati played like that. We didn't lose [that style], we just don't have the title Big East team."
The Huskies, seeded seventh in the East Regional, and the No. 2 seed Wildcats go at it again on Saturday around 9:45 p.m. at the First Niagara Center. They'll play for old-times' sake and a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"It's just another Big East game," Villanova's Darrun Hilliard said. "They've been out of the league for a year but it's going to be another big-time, Big East game.
Villanova's James Bell added, "It's going to be real physical."
UConn moved into the American Athletic Conference and Villanova (29-4) stayed with the other non-football schools to form the core of the new Big East. The Wildcats went 16-2 in the conference but lost to Seton Hall in the conference tournament. Long considered a candidate for a No. 1 seed, the 'Cats got a No. 2 behind Virginia in the regional.
"Our kids are dialed in because they have great respect for the tradition," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "UConn, they know. This is going to be a heck of a battle. Just think about it, two guys who started for UConn last year [Tyler Olander and Omar Calhoun] come off the bench now. Each guy has stayed and gotten better. We've got a heck of a challenge, hopefully we've gotten better, too."
UConn (27-8) last played Villanova at the XL Center on Feb. 16, 2013, just a few days after an emotional win over Syracuse. The Wildcats played hard and tough, outrebounded UConn 41-25 and won, 70-61. The teams have played 63 times and Villanova leads 33-30.
"I remember they were beasts down low," Boatright said. "They were relentless on the glass."
Said Niels Giffey: "They're a scrappy team and they bring the game to you. They don't sit back and wait for shots to fall."
A year earlier, the Huskies came from far behind to beat Villanova in Philadelphia on Shabazz Napier's memorable game-winning shot in overtime.
"I don't think they're going to sit back and remember anything we did two years ago," Napier said. "They understand we've gotten better, and they've gotten better."
The key figure in Villanova's victory last year was Ryan Arcidiacono, who burned the Huskies from the perimeter with 25 points. This, for UConn, is where it starts Saturday, even though Arcidiacono isn't shooting quite as well as a sophomore. The Wildcats (29-4) have taken nearly as many three-point shots (824) as two-point shots (852) and are shooting 35.5 percent on threes.
"They're an amazing three-point shooting team," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "So we're going to have our work cut out for us. We've got to play [JayVaughn] Pinkston down low, that's what gives them their balance. That's what makes them so tough to guard.
Pinkston, 6 feet 7, 260 pounds, is the kind of brawny frontcourt player that has given UConn, with its lanky frontcourt, trouble. DeAndre Daniels, who scored 18 points against St. Joseph's in the Huskies' OT win Thursday, and Amida Brimah, who made critical plays down the stretch in that game, will need to offset Villanova's frontcourt.
"If teams are going to be really aggressive in taking away your three, then you've got to have an answer for that," Wright said. His Wildcats beat Milwaukee 73-53 to advance.
The Huskies have a similar offensive philosophy. Although they don't shoot the three quite as much as Villanova, they do tend to rely on it and sometimes over-rely on it when their inside game is not working. But more often than not, the Huskies have found a way.
"You feel familiar with Villanova," Ollie said. "You've played against them. But at the end of the day, it's a basketball game. … We've gone through everything and I believe in these kids, and they believe in themselves. Till that last zero goes, we're going to play. That's the great thing about this team."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun