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Men's Basketball: Old Big East foes UConn and Villanova fight for trip to MSG

By Tim Fontenault
On March 21, 2014

  • Connecticut's Ryan Boatright, center, passes away from Saint Joseph's Chris Wilson, right, and Halil Kanacevic, left, during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, March 20, 2014. AP

BUFFALO - The one thing that many UConn players mention when they are asked what they miss about the Big East is Madison Square Garden, the home of the conference's annual tournament.

When UConn squares off against Villanova at the First Niagara Center on Saturday (9:40 p.m., TBS), a trip to the Garden will be on the line, as the former conference foes play for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen next weekend.

"It gives us motivation," DeAndre Daniels said. "We want to get to Madison Square Garden, but we've got to get through Villanova first so we're going to take it game by game. We're going to come out, come out play our hardest and give it our all to win the game."

The battle of the old Big East is one that almost did not come to fruition. Villanova trailed for stretches during the first half, but ultimately ended up beating No. 15 seed Milwaukee 73-53. UConn also struggled to get out in front in its game Thursday against St. Joseph's. Despite a cold shooting night from Shabazz Napier, the Huskies were able to hold on for an 89-81 win in overtime.

"It was a confidence boost for the entire team," Ryan Boatright said, "and it was good to get one of those games out of the way early, because that's how it's going to be throughout this whole tournament. You ain't going to win too many games by 10 or more points, so it's going to be a grind-out game all the time."

Down for most of the game, UConn was able to stay with and ultimately beat the Hawks thanks in part to the production from players outside of Napier and Boatright, particularly Amida Brimah, whose offensive rebound in the final minute led to a 3-point play that tied the game at 73.

"That's what this tournament is about, other guys making plays," head coach Kevin Ollie said. "That's what shows you a true good team when other guys can step up. It's not always Ryan. It's not always Shabazz. Amida did a great job, and he grew up last night, I believe."

Brimah's rebound was one of 34 for UConn Thursday night. Despite their size, UConn's effort on the glass is still one of the Huskies' biggest weaknesses, and it is one they will have to cope with against a Villanova team that may not be long, but can still grab rebounds.

Villanova will likely start Daniel Ochefu, a six-foot-11-inch forward averaging 6.1 rebounds per game. After Ochefu, Darryle Reynolds, who stands three inches shorter, is the Wildcats' tallest player. Despite this, Villanova averages 37.4 rebounds per game, with Ochefu, JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell all averaging 6.1 per game.

Comparatively, UConn, with a favorable size advantage against Villanova, is averaging 35.3 rebounds per game, and the leading rebounder is Napier, a six-foot-one-inch point guard, who pulls down six rebounds per game.

"You know, I take it personal," Ollie said. "If I'm a big and a point guard is leading us in rebounding, I'm going to take that personal. So I'm going to go out there and get those crucial rebounds."

In the last five games, Daniels has stepped up and become that big man to overtake Napier on the boards. The junior wing forward is averaging 7.2 rebounds per game since a March 8 loss at Louisville, while also leading the team in scoring with 15.8 points per game in that span.

Daniels' hot streak is reminiscent of his hot streak to end the 2012-13 season, when he averaged 22 points over the Huskies' last three games.

"He's been coming along," Ollie said. "He's been a little inconsistent this year, and we just talk to him about getting touches. The more touches he gets, the better offensive player he becomes...He's starting to do that."

Most of Villanova's squad was on the team last year that went to Hartford a few days after the Huskies shocked Syracuse at the XL Center. Led by 25 points from Ryan Arcidiacono, the Wildcats knocked the Huskies down a peg by winning 70-61.

That night, Arcidiacono went 5-for-9 from the 3-point line, and Villanova will again live and die by the 3-pointer Saturday. The Wildcats, who shoot 35.5 percent from behind the arc, have attempted 824 threes in their 33 games.

UConn, meanwhile, shoots 39 percent from distance and has only attempted 649 threes through 35 games.

"We just have to get up in (Arcidiacono) and just play smart," Boatright said. "We've got to respect him, though. We can't get too close to him. We can't give him too much space. I've been playing guards like that all year, so we'll be alright."

With UConn and Villanova squaring off on the same floor where Syracuse will play Dayton on Friday night, a lot has been made of a "Big East reunion" in Buffalo. But Ollie is not worried about the past. His only concern right now is that his team has a chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen and move closer to a national championship.

"I don't care what league we're playing against, we've got to go out there and play," Ollie said. "I want UConn to be out on top at the end of the game. So it's good for the media. It's good that they set it up. But at the end of the day, we've got to go play."

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