Huskies hit the road for difficult test at No. 14 Villanova
UConn is trying to earn more than a marquee victory on Saturday.
It also is trying to earn some respect.
The two teams — one future and one current Big East program — meet at noon (FS1) at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
Coach Dan Hurley may have mentioned the last two lopsided losses in the series a few times this week.
"Today in practice coach Hurley was saying they don't respect us," freshman James Bouknight said. "He was screaming it all throughout the practice. We know that we've got to come in with a different type of energy."
This the third straight season the two teams have played. The previous two meetings went poorly for the Huskies, who lost by an average of 21.5 points.
"I'm not sure after the last two years that we've played them how much respect that they have for our team when you've lost by 43 points in our two games in the last two years," Hurley said. "We've got to play to our identity, and we've got to earn their respect early in the game or else we'll struggle again."
Easier said than done.
UConn (10-6) is on a bit of a slide, dropping three of its last four games, while No. 14 Villanova (13-3) is surging, winning nine of its last 10.
Plus, the Huskies have struggled mightily on the road in recent years, going 3-19 in the last three seasons. And they haven't won a road game against a ranked team since 2014.
Villanova has risen to elite status. The Wildcats have captured two of the last four national championships. The Huskies won their last national title in 2014 and have had three straight losing seasons.
"They have the identity that coach (Jim) Calhoun and Kevin (Ollie) had in the program and what coach Geno (Auriemma) has on the women's side, they have that now," Hurley said. "We lost ours. We're rebuilding ours and watching them play is humbling on film with where we're at in that process compared to where they are.
"The last two years we've played them have been a pretty good reflection of where both programs in terms of that championship program quality and where each program is at relative to that. We've got a long way to go."
UConn has played better and played harder in the last two games but came away with a split, beating Tulane on Jan. 8 and losing to No. 16 Wichita State in double overtime on Sunday.
Sunday's game was the first that the Huskies competed without starting forward Tyler Polley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice on Jan. 10. Bouknight played well in his first career start and reserve Sid Wilson took advantage of his expanded role.
More will be needed from both players for the Huskies to have any shot at an upset Saturday.
"It's definitely a good opportunity for me to play more minutes now that Tyler is out," Bouknight said. "But it's nothing that I think I can't handle. I think I'm ready for it."
UConn will miss Polley's length against a tall Villanova lineup. The Wildcats have the size to post up inside and the shooting touch to score from the perimeter. Nearly half their shots have come from 3-point range.
What Villanova lacks in depth, it makes up for in talent and discipline.
UConn's defense faces one of its toughest challenges.
"We've been better guarding the three point line... This is a different animal," Hurley said. "They post their guards. Last year we had a lot of live ball turnovers. Our brutal shot selection and turnovers led to open threes. You've got to be able to play man to man defense and win battles against them."
If not, UConn may have trouble avoiding another blowout loss like last season's 81-58 decision at Madison Square Garden.
"The last two times we've seen Villanova it hasn't been close," junior Josh Carlton said. "So, hopefully we've got the mindset to come in that we have something to prove against these guys. ... We have to not only play hard against them but play smart."
• Before departing for Philadelphia on Friday, the Huskies stopped to visit Polley, who was recovering from successful knee surgery at a hotel with his family following the procedure. "The surgery went well," Hurley said. "He's with his family so he's in great spirits. He's got like the perfect disposition to be able to handle the rigors of rehab and recovery."
UCONN at No. 14 VILLANOVA
Location: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
Tip: Noon (FS1)
Records: UConn 10-6, Villanova 13-3
Last game: UConn lost to Wichita State, 89-86 (2OTs) Sunday; Villanova beat DePaul, 79-75 (OT) Tuesday
Probable starters: UConn, 6-0 r-jr. guard Alterique Gilbert (9.6 pts, 4.8 assists), 6-2 sr. guard Christian Vital (14.3 pts, 6.8 rebs), 6-4 fr. guard James Bouknight (9.8 pts, 3.7 rebs), 6-9 r-fr. forward Akok Akok (6.4 pts, 6.4 rebs, 2.9 blks), 6-11 jr. center Josh Carlton (9.9 pts, 6.9 rebs)
Villanova, 6-3 jr. guard Collin Gillespie (15.1 pts), 6-9 so. forward Cole Swider (8.6 pts, 3.6 rebs), 6-7 jr. forward Jermaine Samuels (10.4 pts, 5.2 rebs), fr. forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (10.8 pts, 9.7 rebs), 6-8 so. forward Saddiq Bey (15.4 pts, 5.2 rebs)
Noteworthy: UConn dropped 3 of last 4 games. ... Non-conference regular season finale. ... Huskies 4-26 in last 30 meetings against nationally-ranked teams, 1-2 this season. Last true road win vs. top 25 foe: at Memphis, 83-73, Jan. 16, 2014. ... UConn joins Villanova in Big East next season. ... Series: UConn trails, 35-31, losing 3 of last 4 meetings including 81-58 in Dec. 2018. ... Top reserve: 6-4 fr. guard Justin Moore (10.9 pts). ... Wildcats won 9 of last 10. ... Robinson-Earl with 5 double-doubles this season. ... Villanova averages 9.6 3-pointers made per game. .. UConn 6-5 all-time vs. Villanova at Wells Fargo Center. ... Wildcats No. 21 in NCAA NET ratings as of Jan. 16. ... Hot: Akok with at least 4 blocks in 5 of last 8 games. Cold: Huskies shot under 40 percent in 3 of last 5 games. ... Both teams will wear shooting shirts with words "We Cannot Walk Alone," as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. ... Huskies 0-2 in true road games this season, losing by an average of 15.5 points. ... Wildcats 8-0 at home. ... Up next: UConn visits Houston Thursday in Texas.
— Gavin Keefe
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