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UConn trails only Villanova in pre-season Big East men's picks

New York — Want to get the UConn men's basketball team's attention?

Just mention Villanova to the players.

Coach Dan Hurley talks to his team about the Wildcats on a regular basis.

"I feel like he knows Villanova is the gold standard," senior Tyrese Martin said Tuesday during Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden. "He says things to fuel our fire and brings up Villanova because he knows things like that will get us going. Bringing them up in practice, it definitely gets guys maybe angry in a way. 'Why are you talking about them?'"

Everybody else in the Big East is also talking about Villanova, the top choice in the Big East Coaches' Preseason poll that was released prior to the event.

Villanova received 10 first-place votes, followed by UConn (one vote), Xavier, St. John's and Seton Hall in the top five.

Just as Big East teams used to aspire to be as successful as UConn during the Huskies' glory days, Villanova is now the model program.

The Wildcats have dominated in recent years, winning or sharing seven of the last eight Big East regular season titles. They've captured two national championships in the last five years. They're ranked fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.

They're loaded again, with standout guard Collin Gillespie leading the charge. Gillespie is the Big East Preseason Player of the Year. Veterans Jermaine Samuels and Justin Moore are all-league preseason second team picks.

"Villanova is not just the class of the Big East right now, they're one of the elite programs in the country," Hurley said. "You want to have a barometer that you're striving for in your conference."

Hurley, starting his fourth season, believes the Huskies are in position to challenge the Wildcats.

Hurley has gradually closed the gap by restocking the roster with talent, scoring major victories on the recruiting trail and developing players.UConn is ranked 24th in the AP preseason poll.

"In your mind as a coach you want to keep advancing the program," Hurley said. "Obviously, last year we were clearly over the course of the season the third best team in the league behind Villanova and Creighton.

"We want to be better this year than we were last year. The next logical step for us is to put ourselves in a position during the regular season to late in the year to be in contention for a championship.

"Obviously, that's a tremendous challenge with where VIllanova is as a program. Their culture and their mentality, they don't give many games away. They make very, very few mistakes. Hopefully, for us, with such a veteran team and an older team, we'll be a team that makes less mistakes and blinks less, especially at the end of games, and is able to be in contention going into March."

Wright has followed Hurley's coaching career dating back to Hurley's days at St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J.

He watched Hurley's master building plan lift programs at Wagner and Rhode Island. He's seen that trend continue at UConn.

"It just looks like the classic building of a program," Wright said. "You can see each year with Danny his fingerprints are on the team. I remember his team from Wagner. You can just see it on another level now.

"I recruited a lot of his guys in high school, and I see the same culture being built. The higher the level you go, the harder it is to do. I see it happening the same way it's happened at every stop."

Wright cast his first-place vote for UConn.

UConn is one of several Big East teams that could potentially dethrone the defending Big East champs.

"I must think they've got great experience back and they've got great talent and great depth," Wright said. "I think Butler is the same kind of team as they are with the experience and talent. I think Providence is that way. I think St. John's is that way."

As far as UConn is concerned, itis deserving of its preseason ranking.

"We have a lot of returning depth, older players, that plays a huge role in that," guard R.J. Cole said. "Then we have a very talented recruiting class coming in. We're probably one of the deepest teams in the Big East; That's always going to be one of our biggest strengths. I just think we have a very, very special team. I honestly truly believe that. I think people are starting to realize that."

UConn and Villanova will play twice this season, with both meetings in February — on the 5th in Philadelphia and 22nd in Hartford.

During his first three years as UConn coach, Hurley went 0-3 versus the Wildcats, dropping the last two by single digits.

"Villanova is probably our main rival this year," Martin said. "That game is circled on our calendar. The intensity level is going to be very high when we play Villanova."

g.keefe@theday.com

 

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