MBB Preview: ‘Nova to host No. 13 Connecticut, No. 24 Marquette in Philadelphia

Michael Zipf

Defense Clawing Back?

The Wildcat faithful secretly believe that a late postseason run might be possible because of one number – 34.8 percent. The coaching staff is relishing the fact that maybe the young and inexperienced team is starting to grasp and execute the defensive concepts that have been relentlessly preached all season because of that same number. Although just a statistic on paper, 34.8 percent, which is Villanova’s defensive field goal percentage during its last three games, could signify a critical transition in the team’s maturation.

During its five-game losing streak, the team’s inability to defend against the 3-point shot and guard against the dribble-drive penetration resulted in opponents averaging over 80 points per game. Occasionally, Head Coach Jay Wright indicated that if his young team was not making shots, it was not focused on defense. However, in their matchup against a formidable Georgetown Hoyas offense, in which the Wildcats shot a dismal 13 percent in the second half, the ‘Cats defense rose to the occasion, limiting the No. 8 team in the nation to 55 points, its second-lowest output of the season.

The Young Guns

At first glance, Connecticut and Villanova appear to be programs heading in two different directions this season. The Huskies enter the matchup on a nine-game winning streak that has catapulted them into the upper echelon of the Big East and has restored the national prominence that was uncharacteristically absent last season.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats enter the game barely clinging onto their NCAA tournament hopes while trying to claw their way back into the conference standings. Although the differences between the two programs are clear – Connecticut, renowned for its strong frontcourt and Villanova’s acclaimed “Guard U” – underneath the statistics and box scores, the similarities are eerily striking. Both teams are mostly made up of underclassman, with neither team having a senior player on the roster. At times, the two teams’ youth and inexperience have created flashes of brilliance, while simultaneously raising questions and doubts.

The Huskies, led by Hall-of-Fame Head Coach Jim Calhoun, feature a plethora of dynamic sophomores, including Big East Player of the Year candidate Hasheem Thabeet. At 7-feet-3-inches, Thabeet, follows a great lineage of dominant shot blocking centers that have recently been the staple of Calhoun’s program.

Like his predecessors Emeka Okafor and Josh Boone, Thabeet leads the Big East in blocked shots, averaging close to five per game. After struggling offensively last season, Thabeet has finally started to reach the potential that had NBA scouts ranting and raving.

Joining Thabeet in the frontcourt is fellow sophomore Stanley Robinson. Robinson, an extraordinary athlete, provides the Huskies with a versatile forward who relentlessly attacks the basket. However, the success of the UConn frontcourt often relies on the steady performance of junior Jeff Adrien, who leads the team in rebounding at 9.2 rebounds per game.

Once regarded as one of the premier point guards to enter college, A.J. Price struggled to fulfill his lofty expectations during his first two seasons. Marred and plagued by off-the-court incidents and injuries, Price has revitalized his game, leading the Huskies in scoring and assists. Facing a dominant frontcourt that leads the nation in shot blocking and ranks first in rebounding in the Big East, Villanova cannot afford to let Price run free.

On the offensive end, the Wildcats should be wary of the Huskies’ shot-blocking abilities; however, they should attack the basket. The dribble-drive abilities of Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds should provide open looks for Corey Stokes and Dwayne Anderson. Expect Reynolds, who torched the Huskies for 40 points last year, including six 3-pointers, to be aggressive and assertive on the offensive end. Ultimately, the ability of the frontcourt to rebound and contain the Huskies’ interior players will determine whether the ‘Cats are to pull off an important Big East victory.

Connecticut 82, Villanova 74.

The Battle of the Guards

The Marquette Golden Eagles, led by the three-headed monster backcourt of Dominic James, Jerel McNeal and Wesley Matthews, enter the Wachovia Center in search of regaining the prowess that earned them a Top 10 ranking during the early portion of the season. Villanova’s ability to contain the dribble-drive penetration of James, McNeal and Matthews will be critical. However, the X-factor for the Golden Eagles will be often unheralded forward Lazar Haywood. Haywood, who is enjoying a sensational sophomore season, is a slashing forward that possesses guard-like skills and currently leads the team in scoring.

With the addition of transfer Maurice Acker, Tom Crean’s team will often implement a four-guard lineup that resembles the style that the Wildcats utilized two years ago. Dan Fitzgerald and David Cubillan, 3-point marksmen, will be critical against a ‘Nova team that ranks among the lower tier of teams in 3-point field goal defense. Both Fitzgerald and Cubillan are shooting above 37 percent from the arc this season.

On the offensive end, Villanova should attack Marquette’s frontcourt. Expect Wright to utilize a combination of lineups to offset Marquette’s up-tempo pace. At times Villanova could use four guards to counter Marquette’s perimeter attack. Junior swingman and quad-captain Anderson, who has been relentless on the glass for the ‘Cats recording back-to-back double-digit rebounding games, will need to continue his strong performance for the host Wildcats.

Former McDonald’s All-American Stokes seems to be regaining his confidence and shooting stroke after struggling early in the season. Expect Stokes to build upon his 13-point performance against St. John’s. Ultimately, this matchup will come down to Villanova’s ability to contain the Golden Eagles’ perimeter attack while winning the advantage on the glass.

Villanova 77, Marquette 73.