Connecticut, Villanova Are Big East Survivors

The Connecticut Huskies continue to cut it close but now find themselves just one victory short of confirming their Indianapolis-bound reservations. Fellow Big East Conference member Villanova also has a Sunday task to complete before its players can start thinking about playing in Indy on April 1.

The way things have been breaking of late, the University of Connecticut Huskies have their coaches and fans pulling their hair in frustration in unison.

 

If Coach Jim Calhoun's team keeps it up, there are going to be a lot of bald citizens in Connecticut at about the same time as the Huskies are cutting down nets in Indianapolis late night on April 3.

 

On a Friday night – and early Saturday morning -- when the Huskies committed 26 turnovers and trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half, they were able to pull out a 98-92 victory in overtime over a group of Huskies (from the University of Washington) in Washington, D.C. who were, for the most part, a lot scrappier and focused than they were.

 

But that doesn't seem to take much these days.

 

Connecticut rallied from 12 points down to beat Albany, then needed more late-game heroics from junior point guard Marcus Williams to hold off a mediocre Kentucky club, 87-83, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

 

It was Williams, with some significant assistance from Rashad Anderson, who kept The Most Talented Team In The Country (anything said so frequently should be capitalized) from losing to the runner-up team from the Pacific 10 Conference in overtime.

 

Williams fed Anderson for a 3-pointer, converted a three-point play (layup and free throw) and then handed off to Anderson – who evaded defender Ryan Appleby just long enough to hit another 3-pointer with two seconds remaining to send the thing into overtime.

 

With a trip to Indianapolis and the Final Four at stake, Connecticut earned the right to face No. 11 seed (and huge local favorite, via Fairfax, Va.) George Mason Sunday,

 

An opportunity to win the program's third national title beckons them to Indy, assuming they produce something close to 40 minutes of solid basketball Sunday.

 

Williams, who also came up with a game-clinching interception in the closing seconds,  scored 26 points to go with eight assists, four rebounds and seven turnovers. He has been enough to keep the Huskies surviving and advancing through three rounds of the tournament, despite the team turning in something less than a full game's worth of anything approaching the caliber of play expected out of a squad coached by a Hall of Famer and having the kind of talent most other college coaches can only fantasize about possessing.

 

And, if Connecticut can win three more games without a noticeable increase in passion (although those on the bench were as lively as has been seen all season when Anderson sent the game into OT) and by continuing to play the kind of defense that would make the members of Calhoun's 1999 and 2004 title teams blush, it will probably mean that Williams has continued play at the same level that has carried his team thus far since it opened tourney competition on March 17.

 

It may also mean that there are going to be a whole lot of Connecticut alumni and other boosters with fistfuls of hair.

 

The Huskies weren't the only folks from the Big East Conference who needed an extra five minutes to keep their Indianapolis aspirations alive.

 

Villanova was the first of three Big East members in action Friday night – and its players seemed in real danger of facing the prospects of an unencumbered Saturday and Sunday on their hands when the Boston College Eagles zapped them to the tune of 9-0 and 25-9 advantages.

 

And the Wildcats' former Big East buddies (relocated to the Atlantic Coast Conference this season) seemed more than capable of doing what they set out to do – cut down Villanova's transition game, make the Wildcats play half-court defenses for long periods of time and punch the ball inside as much as possible while limiting the clean looks Villanova's jump shooters got at the rim.

 

And they did all of those things, although Randy Foye's scoring ability, including his jump shooting, eventually helped the Wildcats creep back into contention.

 

Ultimately, though, Villanova's pressure defense wreaked enough havoc and guards Foye and Kyle Lowry, especially, created enough offense.

 

A breakdown on an under-the-basket, out of bounds situation, with 3.5 seconds to go, led to a pass from Lowry to a cutting William Sheridan (who was uncovered when two defenders chased Ray) for a shot that was goal-tended by the Eagles' Sean Williams.

 

And the Eagles were on their way to a Sunday showdown with Florida, which prevented a "true" Big East matchup a couple of hours later by edging Georgetown, 57-53, thanks to a three-point play by sophomore Corey Brewer with 13.3 seconds to play and a couple of insurance free throws by classmate Al Horford seven seconds later.

 

Yes, in case you missed it, it was another solid night of Sweet 16 chills and thrills, some 24 hours after stunners in Atlanta (overall No. 1 seed Duke falling to LSU and Texas eliminating West Virginia on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by Kenton Paulino) and Oakland (UCLA's 73-71 victory over a Gonzaga team that was outscored, 11-0, over the final three-plus minutes).

 

And, for the second consecutive evening, there was rather one-sided affair. Thursday it was Memphis pulling away in the second half for an 80-64 victory over Bradley. And Friday it was George Mason, with an 18-point advantage into the second half in Washington, D.C., holding off Wichita State, 63-55, for the second time in a little more than a month.

 

It bears repeating: There is nothing "flukey" about the way the George Mason Patriots have reeled int their program's first three-ever NCAA Tournament victories (over Michigan State, North Carolina and a Wichita State team that beat Seton Hall and Tennessee to get to the District of Columbia).

 

They play with nearly 40 minutes of energy and focus on both ends of the floor and truly seem to be savoring every moment of their tournament run.

 

Connecticut should take a lesson from them. If not, the Huskies may find the Patriots snatching that Final Four spot that has been put on reserve for them all season.



Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com.

Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.frankhoops.com.


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