Big East titans set to clash on Monday

Kyle Scudilla

We interrupt this regularly scheduled Villanova men’s basketball preview article to bring you the following important message.

Attention St. Joe’s fans; the Palestra is not your house. Penn plays there. As much as you chant, it’s not going to change the fact that all the banners that hang from the ceiling belong to the Quakers.

With that being said, and the Big 5 Championship being won, the Villanova Wildcats can now set their sights on the remainder of its Big East conference schedule, which includes possibly the most highly anticipated game of the season for Wildcat fans. Monday night at the Wachovia Center, where the ‘Cats have already defeated Syracuse and Louisville this season, Villanova will take on conference rival and current No. 1 seed in both the Associated Press and coaches’ polls, the Connecticut Huskies. UConn has started the season 20-1, with their only loss coming at the hands of Marquette in early January. Since then, they have ridden a nine-game winning streak in which they have defeated four ranked opponents (Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Indiana) as well as an upstart Georgetown Hoyas squad which has since risen rapidly in the national polls. During the streak, Coach Jim Calhoun’s Huskies grabbed the number one spot in the rankings from Duke and haven’t looked back, holding the top spot for three weeks in a row.

A big reason for UConn’s red-hot play has been its dominant frontcourt, which is also certainly the best set of big men Villanova’s forwards will have seen all year. They are led in points, potential and notoriety by forward Rudy Gay. The 6-foot-9 sophomore is averaging 15.6 ppg to go along with 6.3 rpg. Gay’s talent inside is unquestioned, but his work ethic and attitude have been of some concern to UConn this season. In some of the Huskies’ biggest match-ups, including contests against Arizona and Gonzaga as well as the loss to Marquette, Gay has registered point totals well below his season average and been virtually non-existent at times. He has been criticized by national college basketball analysts as sometimes taking games off and not being in the right mindset to help his team win. However, in his last two games, wins against Pittsburgh and Indiana, Gay has averaged 20.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg, showing why many project him to be an eventual lottery pick in the NBA draft.

Joining him down low for the Huskies are forward Josh Boone and center Hilton Armstrong. Boone, a 6-foot-10 junior, leads UConn in rebounding this season with an average of seven boards a game to go along with 10.4 ppg. Although his scoring comes and goes, his rebounding is a consistent facet of his game, as he always can be counted on to be a force on the glass. His season high came in a recent game against Providence where he grabbed 13 rebounds, including six while on offense. When Boone isn’t busy cleaning up messes underneath the basket, his teammate Armstrong certainly is. The 6-foot-11 senior is second on the squad with 6.6 rpg a game. He has posted double digit rebounding totals in four of UConn’s games, including a season-high 12 against Providence. The trio of Gay, Boone and Armstrong are an imposing bunch, and may at times force Villanova coach Jay Wright to limit his well-known four guard lineup to two guards and three big men to help the ‘Cats compete for rebounds.

Just because the frontcourt is what UConn is known for doesn’t mean Villanova’s guards will not face a challenge in the backcourt as well. Connecticut point guard Marcus Williams has garnered publicity in two very distinct ways this season. The junior started the season suspended for getting involved in a laptop theft scandal. After missing a significant chunk of the season, Williams has appeared in 10 games and really helped solidify the Huskies as a favorite to reach this year’s Final Four. The guard is averaging an eye-popping 7.8 assists per game to go along with 10.1 ppg. With such a talented point guard running the show, it’s easy to see why Connecticut’s big men are able to post such impressive numbers.

Williams is joined in the backcourt by shooting guard Rashad Anderson. The 6-foot-5 senior swingman is the second-leading scorer on the Huskies, averaging 14.2 ppg. Anderson can be absolutely lethal from downtown. (Just ask the Morehead State Eagles, who watched UConn’s sharpshooter go seven-for-seven from beyond the arc and rack up 33 points along the way.) For the season, Anderson has had five games where he’s posted more than 20 points and is shooting a fantastic 43 percent from downtown.

The Huskies are a deep squad that also features important contributors off its bench. The reserves are led by senior forward Denham Brown. For the season, Brown is averaging 9.2 ppg and 4.2 rpg, both excellent marks for a non-starter. Freshman forward Jeff Adrien has become an instant factor in the Huskies’ rotation this season, adding 6.7 ppg and 5.0 rpg to UConn’s loaded roster.

The Wildcats will certainly have their hands full with this talented bunch, and it will be interesting to see how Coach Wright manages the balancing act in his lineup between guards and traditional frontcourt players. Wright gets nearly all of his scoring from the four guard set of Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry, but it’s hard to see the 6-foot-2 Ray and the 6-foot-4 Foye matching up against the likes of 6-foot-9 Rudy Gay and 6-foot-10 Josh Boone on a consistent basis. Wright will probably need at least one of Villanova’s forwards, most likely Will Sheridan or Shane Clark, to add a significant amount of points to ‘Nova’s total in order for the ‘Cats to match-up effectively with the skyscraping lineup of Coach Calhoun.

Before tangling with the Huskies in Philadelphia, Villanova must travel to Chicago to play the DePaul Blue Demons for the first time since the school joined the Big East conference this season. DePaul, like many of the Conference USA “transfer students,” has been treated roughly in its inaugural season in the Big East. They’ve stumbled thus far to a 2-8 record in conference play and a 9-12 record overall. The team endured a six-game losing streak in Big East games before finally winning at South Florida. The team’s highlight game of the year came in an 84-81 win at Wake Forest, when the Demon Deacons were ranked 16th in the country. Wake Forest, like DePaul, has since spiraled toward the basement of its conference’s standings.

The bright spot for DePaul in this tough season has been the play of junior Sammy Mejia. The 6-foot-6 guard is leading the team in scoring with 15.6 ppg. His best scoring game of the year came against Providence, where he tallied 30 points on 10 for 21 shooting. He is also known for being very active on the defensive end, and should have his hands full chasing around the likes of Ray and Foye on Saturday afternoon.

Assuming the Wildcats don’t suffer a letdown against DePaul, Monday’s game should pit the two highest ranked teams in the Big East against each other on a national stage. Villanova will come out gunning, hoping to get a win against the Huskies in Philadelphia so they’re not forced to salvage a split at Connecticut later this month. The importance of this game is huge if the ambitious Wildcats hope to build their résumé to be strong enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Who knows, with the significance of Monday’s match-up, maybe the paying fans will actually show some effort in the stands for a change? While that may be asking too much, at least ‘Nova Nation knows the people on the court should be as feisty and aggressive as they’ve been all season.