The Wildcats will face the Connecticut Huskies on Wednesday, February 28, 2007, at 7 PM at Gampel Pavilion, on the University of Connecticut’s campus in Storrs (in contrast to the Hartford Civic Center, where many home games are played). A comprehensive preview…
The Viewpoint on the Connecticut Huskies
Coach: Jim Calhoun, 21st season at Connecticut
Calhoun won his 750th game this season (including both UConn and Northeastern, his previous stop), when the Huskies defeated hapless Rutgers at the RAC on Wednesday, February 21, 2007. The victory put him at 12th place on the all-time list, and fourth among active coaches. Depending upon how long the odious Bob Knight continues to coach, it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Calhoun might catch him someday, if UConn continues to succeed and if he coaches long enough. Knight currently has a lead of 136 victories. Although it was seemingly in VU’s best interest for Connecticut to lose at the RAC, it’s actually better, because this way, there is no longer a possibility of the Wildcats becoming a footnote in the UConn annals, as the opponent when Calhoun attained his 750th-victory milestone.
2006-07 Season Analysis - 6-8 Big East, 17-11 overall, RPI rank #94 (as of CollegeRPI.com’s Sunday, February 18, 2007 rankings, it will be updated on Monday, February 26, 2007, when the new numbers emerge).
By the standards of any other program, this would just be written off as a rebuilding year. However, the Huskies are scuffling badly, and after a terrible start in BE play, they faced overwhelming odds as they sought to return to the NCAA tournament (where they made an Elite Eight run last year, prior to – gloriously – serving as the foils for George Mason, the lowest-seeded team ever to reach the Final Four, in one of the most thrilling college basketball games I’ve ever seen.) UConn last missed the Big Dance in 2001.
As it turned out, the Huskies’ long shot at an at-large bid has now completely evaporated. Their tight home loss to #20 Louisville on Sunday, February 25, 2007, extinguished Connecticut’s flickering NCAA hopes entirely. The only way that the Huskies will be heading to the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight appearance will be by winning the Big East tournament.
As its weak SOS indicates, Connecticut did not play a particularly difficult non-Big East schedule this season. Let’s look at the nonconference schedule in detail:
The season started with a surprisingly difficult victory over in-state Quinnipiac at Gampel on November 10, 2006 – the Huskies won just 53-46. From November 17-19, the Huskies hosted their holiday tournament in Hartford, the guests being Mississippi, Central Arkansas, and another in-state school, the Jesuit-run Fairfield. Unsurprisingly, the Huskies won the tournament, blasting all three opponents by margins of 18 points or more. The Huskies concluded November by returning to Gampel for a pair of cupcake victories over Albany and Sacred Heart (also in-state) and whom they defeated by 31 and 43 points, respectively.
Connecticut opened December the same way they had ended November – with a high-cholesterol diet of five cupcakes: the first three were at Gampel and the final two at the HCC. They crushed Texas Southern, Northeastern (where Calhoun spent many years as a head coach before moving up to a then-moribund Connecticut program), St. Mary’s (CA), Pepperdine, and Coppin State: their margin of victory in all five December cupcakes was at least 16 points (St. Mary’s), with the other four all by 22 points or more. The Huskies’ record stood at a perfect 11-0, and Connecticut took its traditional place in the national rankings, thanks to all of these lopsided victories. It should be noted, however, that all of these games were at home, and only Mississippi was from a power conference.
Big East/Intersectional Schedule
When Big East play began, the Huskies’ glittering record suddenly began to nosedive, much to the shock and dismay of its huge and fanatically loyal fan base. They began the conference slate @ West Virginia, and were handed their first loss of the year. They returned to Hartford and had no trouble with terrible South Florida. But the Huskies began to gradually founder; after splitting their first two conference games: they would lose seven of their next eight.
The first sign that something was seriously amiss, came when they stepped out of conference play to visit LSU, on January 6, 2007. The West Virginia loss could be chalked up to the fact that Morgantown is arguably the toughest home court in the conference, and an undefeated team coming in there had a bull’s-eye on its back. And the Mountaineers are a legit team that will almost certainly be back in the NCAA tournament. LSU was coming off a Final Four appearance in 2006, but that having been said, the Tigers crushed the Huskies, defeating them by 17 points, and holding the Huskies’ offense to just 49 points. Next, Marquette arrived in Gampel and emerged with a 73-69 victory. The Huskies made the short trip to Madison Square Garden and topped St. John’s, 68-59, and the Huskies now stood at 12-3 overall, 1-2 Big East.
But disaster would soon strike, for the remainder of January 2007. The Huskies went into free fall, losing five straight: @ Pittsburgh, Indiana at the HCC, @ Louisville, Providence at the HCC, culminating with a loss at DePaul. Connecticut fell out of the rankings with an overall record of just 12-8, but Calhoun now had an even bigger problem on his hands: just qualifying for the Big East tournament. The Huskies were just 2-5 in Big East play and were in mortal danger of not even reaching New York, something which would induce apoplexy among their fervent supporters. Moreover, although the Huskies were about to enter the soft part of the Big East schedule, the end held no promises: the final three opponents were Louisville at Hartford, Villanova at Gampel, and at Georgetown, all three highly losable. Nobody wanted to see the season end on March 3, 2007, at the Verizon Center, but there was a real danger of that taking place.
February 2007 has turned out to be better, with one of the chief reasons being that the Huskies would have the golden opportunity to play Rutgers twice. They opened the month by beating the Scarlet Knights in Hartford, and then saved their season by defeating Syracuse by seven at Gampel. At 14-8, 4-5 Big East, the NCAAs would still be a long shot, but they were now probably at least going to reach Madison Square Garden and draw a NIT bid (not that going to the NIT would be considered a major feat in Storrs, but it would certainly beat not playing at all, which was a real danger at the end of January).
The Huskies, however, have only muddled through, since then. They traveled down to Georgia Tech and lost by 13 points on CBS. They defeated Seton Hall (a team now assured of not reaching New York) at Gampel, but fell @ the Carrier Dome in the rematch with Syracuse. They traveled to the RAC on Wednesday, February 21, 2007, with Calhoun sitting on 749 career victories. In addition, a victory would mathematically assure the Huskies of finishing in the top dozen schools and getting to New York (that’s, obviously, not a sentence that I ever anticipated writing…) The Huskies slew the Scarlet Knights by ten, thus sweeping Rutgers. They put up a good fight vs. Louisville on Sunday in Hartford, but succumbed, 76-69.
What have doomed Connecticut’s NCAA chances, are two facts. One is that they demonstrated virtually no ability to win, outside of the state of Connecticut. Their only road victories, during the entire season, were at Rutgers and St. John’s (and at Madison Square Garden, they were probably the de facto home team, due to the proximity of their fan base and the poor season by St. John's.) They did schedule some reasonably difficult power-conference opponents: two SEC teams (Mississippi and Louisiana State), plus Georgia Tech and Indiana. However, those intersectional games were a disaster, outside of the win over Mississippi. They lost by double-digits @ LSU and @ Georgia Tech, and they lost to Indiana at Hartford by four points. The blowout @ LSU doesn’t look as bad, with the Tigers’ stunning upset of former #1- Florida this weekend, but the fact remains that UConn went 1-3 against significant OOC opponents.
Note: all individual statistics are taken from the UConn Game Notes for the Sunday, February 25, 2007 hosting of Louisville, and so do not reflect that final game.)
#11 Jerome Dyson - 6-3 - Freshman - Guard - 13.2 points/3.8 rebounds /29.6 min per game (Rockville, MD)
#4 Jeff Adrien - 6-7 - Sophomore - Forward - 13.0 points/9.9 rebounds/32.6 min/per game (Brookline, Mass.)
#12 A.J. Price - 6-2 - Sophomore - Guard - 9.7 points/3.0 rebounds/23.9 min/per game (Amityville, NY – the same high school that produced former Wildcat Jason Fraser)
#21 Stanley Robinson - 6-0 - Freshman - Forward - 5.5 points/4.6 rebounds/17.8 min/per game (Birmingham, AL)
#34 Hasheem Thabeet - 7-3 (yes, 7-3, according to the UConn media guide) - Freshman - Center - 6.4 points/6.4 rebounds/4.0 blocks/24.1 min per game (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)
Off the Bench
#24 Craig Austrie - 6-3 - Sophomore - Guard - 6.0 points/1.8 rebounds/19.4 min/per game (Stamford, CT)
#1 Marcus Johnson - 6-6 - Sophomore - Guard/Forward - 5.8 points/3.1 rebounds/17.0 min/per game (Los Angeles, CA)
#3 Doug Wiggins - 6-1 - Freshman - Guard - 7.2 points/2.2 rebounds /18.3 min/per game (East Hartford, CT)
#14 Curtis Kelly - 6-9 - Freshman - Forward - 2.7 points/2.6 rebounds/9.1 min per game (Queens, NY)
#33 Gavin Edwards - 6-9 - Freshman - Forward/Center - 2.2 points/1.7 rebounds/7.0 min/per game (Gilbert, AZ)
Overall Analysis of the Huskies
The Huskies have led the nation in blocked shots for five straight seasons (a record), and they will make it six, thanks to Thabeet. Thabeet already has over 100 blocks (more than all of UConn’s opponents, combined!) He leads the conference in blocks, with 4.0 per contest, and ranks third nationally. And it's not just Thabeet: 11 different Huskies have blocked a shot this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, during that five-year (soon-to-be six-year) reign over opponents’ shots, the Huskies have won four regular-season Big East titles, two Big East tournaments and a national championship. The Huskies are averaging 8.7 blocks per contest, and this presents a serious problem for small Villanova, which does not have an intimidating post presence, and also likes to play a lot of wing players.
A similar pattern emerges with regard to defense, at least as measured by opponents’ field goal percentage. The Huskies have consistently ranked among the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage defense, and even this year’s mediocre team is still ranked among the top 10 nationally in that department.
However, basketball teams do not live upon blocked shots – or even field goal defense - alone, as they will be leading the nation in blocks once more and are probably heading for the NIT. What has hurt the Huskies this season is that it is, plain and simple, a rebuilding year – as a matter of fact, a textbook rebuilding year. They have no seniors or even juniors, of any consequence: the ten-man rotation is entirely comprised of freshmen and sophomores. In light of that fact, it really is remarkable that Connecticut was ranked #18 in the preseason poll in November 2006, and was nationally ranked throughout the fall and winter of 2006. And they kept those rankings by winning their first 11 games, the majority of them by blowout margins, and even reached as high as #12 at Christmas time. The Huskies actually spent ten weeks in the polls this season (all AP polls, as the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll is unreliable):
November 13: #21
November 20: #18
November 27: #20
December 4: #19
December 11: #14
December 18: #14
December 25: #12
January 1: #18
January 8: #24
The Huskies fell out of the rankings for good, after the January 8, 2007, poll. They were in the “Also Receiving Votes” category for the next two polls, January 15 and 22, but have not received a single vote since then.
The teams did not play regularly, until the creation of the Big East. The schools faced each other just four times, beginning in 1941, until the formation of the conference – the Wildcats and Huskies split those four pre-Big East meetings.
Connecticut was the perennial cellar-dweller during the Big East’s Golden Age of the 1980s. They did not emerge as a power until Calhoun’s arrival, and have now been among the league’s titans, virtually every year, since 1990. Villanova still leads the all-time series by a 30-26 margin (28-24 as Big East members), due to all of those easy victories under Rollie Massimino in the 1980s, but the Huskies have drawn far closer over the years. The Huskies have won eight of the ten contests in the series, during the Jay Wright era, which began in 2001-02:
February 13, 2006 - Villanova 69, Connecticut 64 (Wachovia Center)
February 26, 2006 - Connecticut 89, Villanova 75 (Gampel - one of Villanova’s two BE regular-season losses)
Groundhog Day, 2005: Connecticut 81, Villanova 76 (HCC)
February 28, 2004: Connecticut 75, Villanova 74 in OT (Wachovia Center – that one was heartbreaking)
March 12, 2004: Connecticut 87, Villanova 64, Big East tournament (not as heartbreaking)
January 25, 2003: Connecticut 74, Villanova 65 (HCC)
February 15, 2003: Villanova 79, Connecticut 70 (Wachovia Center)
January 13, 2002 – Connecticut 70, Villanova 65 (Wachovia Center)
February 11, 2002 – Connecticut 46, Villanova 40 (HCC – the memorable throwback to “Rollie-ball”, where the Wildcats simply held the ball for as long as possible, in Wright’s maiden season)
March 7, 2002 – Big East tournament – Connecticut 72, Villanova 70 (a gallant effort by Wright’s overmatched Wildcats in New York)
One of the greatest games in Villanova’s illustrious history took place on February 10, 1994, in the old Spectrum in Philadelphia (the CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia Center was not opened until the 1996-97 season, and even that year, Connecticut made what would be its final appearance in the “old building”). Thirteen seasons ago, the nucleus of Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams, Eric Eberz and Jonathan Haynes upset the mighty, top-ranked Huskies, 64-63; it was the signal of the revival of the team’s glories, after a last-place Big East finish in 1992-93. That team, coached by Steve Lappas, would go on to win the NIT.
Villanova hasn’t won at Gampel since February 18, 1995, when the same team (minus Haynes) crushed the Huskies, 96-73, en route to the school’s only Big East tournament title, before or since. In fairness, though, VU has only gone to Gampel twice since then, including last year’s defeat. Villanova’s last win at Hartford was on January 24, 2001, the year prior to Wright’s arrival, when the Wildcats triumphed 70-59.
In summary, the inescapable fact is that Villanova still has to travel to Gampel, a tougher venue, for UConn’s home finale and Senior Night. I would never like VU’s odds under those circumstances. Villanova hasn’t beaten UConn, away from the Wachovia Center (@ Gampel, the HCC, or MSG) since 2001.
In addition, last year’s season split doesn’t offer a lot of clues, since Villanova lost three players, plus Fraser, to the NBA, and Connecticut is loaded with freshmen in its rotation.
Villanova is coming off a feel-good, crowd-pleasing Senior Day celebration on Saturday, February 24, 2007, when they routed Rutgers 74-51, in a contest that was over, nearly as soon as it began. Jay Wright was able to completely empty his bench over the last five and a half minutes, giving each of Villanova’s four departing seniors – Curtis Sumpter, Will Sheridan, Mike Nardi, and walk-on Ross Condon – a dramatic exit, without concern over the lopsided score. The Wildcats began the game with a 13-2 run, raced out to a 45-18 lead at halftime and never needed to look back – except to honor the quartet of seniors who were playing their last game in the Pavilion.
I believe that the Wildcats probably (not definitely, but probably – if I had to quantify it, I’d say 85%) secured a NCAA bid with the victory, which placed them at 7-7 Big East, 19-9 overall. Villanova’s sky-high RPI, rooted in the teens, and strength-of-schedule (in the top 10 all season) will not change much for the rest of the year, as so many games have already been baked into the cake, so to speak. Even if the Wildcats lose @ Gampel and at the Wachovia Center against Syracuse and in the first round in New York, there would need to be a great deal of bad news from conference tournaments around the nation. And that’s the worst case scenario. If they win any of those three games, they are 100% certain of a bid, as they’d be either 8-8 in Big East play with a great RPI, or 7-9 in Big East play with a victory in New York and a chance to pick up another good loss to one of the top four BE teams on the second day.
Villanova did benefit tremendously from Louisville’s victory on Sunday. First, it means that the atmosphere in Gampel, even on Senior Night, will not be what it would have been had the Huskies upset the nationally-ranked Cardinals and thus maintained some fleeting hopes of an at-large bid. Moreover, Louisville’s victory means that the #20 Cardinals will stay ranked – thus making Villanova’s victory over them look better in the Wildcats’ tournament profile.
I’ll have a full recap after the game.
Questions? Comments? Information? You can e-mail email@example.com.