UConn's A-game is best in the land
STORRS, Conn. -- The reason Connecticut is undeniably the team to beat over the final five weeks of this college basketball season can be condensed to a 20-second sequence Sunday against Villanova.
The remarkable Wildcats, Short America's team, were obdurately hanging around against the lavishly talented Huskies. Nova trailed by eight with just more than six minutes remaining when leading scorer Randy Foye did what Wright's Runts do best: He burst past his defender on the dribble and drove to the basket.
But no basket in the country is harder to reach than the one UConn is defending. Foye encountered two landlords a-leaping: 6-foot-11 Hilton Armstrong and 6-10 Josh Boone. They turned 6-4 Foye's shot into an overarched prayer that boinged off the rim and was snatched by the most versatile player on the floor, UConn forward Rudy Gay.
Jay Wright couldn't call a timeout fast enough, but school was out. UConn had flexed its March muscles in an 89-75 payback victory.
In those 20 seconds, the Huskies unveiled their full arsenal: intimidating interior defense, dominant rebounding, peerless point-guard play, deadly shooting and dazzling depth. (Anderson, the team's second-leading scorer, comes off the bench, part of a studly eight-man rotation.)
"They were on top of every aspect of their game," Wright said.
When that's the case, UConn is unbeatable. Duke, Memphis, Texas, Villanova and the rest of America have been put on notice: The Huskies have assumed the favorite's role for the stretch run.
When All-America candidate Gay takes only five shots and plays 27 minutes and you beat the nation's No. 2 team by 14 points? You have plenty of weapons. UConn got 8-for-8 shooting from Armstrong and Boone combined, got a rugged eight points and nine rebounds from freshman strongman Jeff Adrien, got 12 dimes from Williams, and got a career-high 23-point explosion from Denham Brown.
No other team has that many quality players.
"That's what makes us special," Gay said.
The question is whether the sometimes-distracted Dogs can remain zeroed in the rest of the way. The only legitimate knock on UConn is that its focus can wander sometimes.
"I just think we're so talented, it's a lack of competition," said Brown, who went scoreless last time against Villanova. "I'm not saying it's a lack of great teams in the Big East, but when we get up 15, we think we're going to put another 15 up."
UConn got competition Sunday. Sorry, Duke-Carolina, but this has become the Rivalry of the Year in college basketball.
These two teams are stylistic opposites, and we know opposites attract. UConn is overwhelming around the basket with its length and size, and four-guard Villanova is all about perimeter play and quickness. Wright is young and handsome and on the rise in his profession, and rumpled Jim Calhoun glowers beneath banners celebrating his 2005 Hall of Fame induction and two national titles.
Coming into this year, Villanova's seniors hadn't beaten UConn since their freshman season. But the Wildcats got over on Connecticut on Feb. 13 in a frenzied Philly atmosphere, knocking the Huskies out of the nation's No. 1 ranking and setting the stage for a high-powered rematch of top-five teams and Big East top dogs in cozy Gampel Pavilion.
With the game on campus instead of in UConn's spacious home away from home, the Hartford Civic Center, this became the toughest ticket in recent Huskies history. Students camped out in bitter cold weather Saturday night, then rushed in when the doors opened to begin heaping abuse on Villanova (the abuse included one low-class sign aimed at injured Nova star Curtis Sumpter that is too tactless to report here; fortunately, it disappeared from public viewing well before tip-off).
Foye added a dash of pregame spice with comments that appeared in Sunday's Hartford Courant. Talking about Nova's upset win in Philadelphia, he said:
"We wanted it to be a statement game for us," Foye said. "So when people look at us, they know that we're not a team to be pushed around or we're not afraid of someone that's going to try to bully us.
"We're just trying to make a name for ourselves. We're being the bullies in the Big East now and we're bringing it to anybody who we play against and we're going to be tougher and stronger than anybody we play against. That's why the game was so big for us and so important to the student body, mostly to us because [the Huskies have] been the big bad bullies for the last couple years.
"But the way things are going, times are changing, so it's time for a new face on the block, I guess."
Foye didn't mean any disrespect to UConn, but what self-respecting coaching staff wouldn't jump at the chance to use those quotes as motivation? Judging from the postgame comments, Connecticut's staff clearly played up the part about Villanova being the new Big East bullies with its players.
"I think everyone took that to heart," point guard Williams said. "That was sort of like calling us out, like if they want to fight."
So the fight was on. Early on, it was Villanova taking the fight to UConn.
Gay took a severe poke to his left eye early, then caught an elbow on the chin a short time later. As is their wont, the ferocious Wildcats scrambled all over the floor, shoving UConn players out of the way in pursuit of loose balls or for position inside.
Sufficiently challenged, Connecticut did not back down. This was no time for a laid-back response to a pugnacious display.
"We started to see them pushing and fouling us, and the refs weren't calling it," Williams said. "We sort of took the initiative to give it back."
Williams gave it back memorably on one possession. Competing with fearless Villanova point guard Kyle Lowry for a loose ball, Williams lowered his shoulder and sent Lowry sprawling -- and wound up with the ball.
"As the game evolved, we realized that a cross-body block is fine, as long as it's now below the waist," Calhoun cracked.
Clearly, the hard-edged coach enjoyed his team's vigorous response to Nova's tenacity.
"You don't have a chance in the Big East unless you're tough," Calhoun said. "You can have a talented team, but you've got to be tough. ... It's been the signature of our league."
Calhoun found toughness where he expected it -- Adrien, Armstrong and Boone -- and perhaps where he didn't. That would be Brown, whose thunderous drive and dunk in the face of Villanova center Will Sheridan brought 10,000-plus to their feet.
Calhoun called that play "a statement" from his occasionally reticent forward.
"The one who doesn't believe in Denham the most tends to be Denham," the coach said. "It's a constant job of getting him up."
One thing is certain: There will be no difficulty getting either team up for a possible rubber game in the Big East tournament final -- or, down the road even further, a possible fourth meeting at the Final Four.
"I don't want to particularly see them again," Wright said with a smile. "But if we do, it'll be in a good spot."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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