By Sean Kennedy
6:55 PM: #10 Saint Joseph’s (24-9, 11-5 A-10) vs. #7 Connecticut (26-8, 12-6 AAC) – TBS
The Hawks didn’t play a particularly strong non-conference schedule this season, but finishing 11-5 in the A-10 and then ripping through the conference tournament was no small feat, as evidenced by the fact that 6 conference members made the big dance. So they won’t shrink in the moment against a Connecticut team who’s had 3 of their 8 losses come against Louisville and is one of just two teams this season to defeat top-overall seed Florida.
Their first priority will be slowing down UConn star Shabazz Napier. The Huskies point guard almost literally does everything for his team, leading them in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. In addition to being very adept at the drive-and-kick, Napier is an excellent three-point shooter at 39%, as he’s joined by backcourt mate Ryan Boatright (37%) and swingman Niels Giffey (53%) to form a dangerous perimeter attack. Even big man DeAndre Daniels has shot 44% behind the arc this season on close to 3 attempts per game. Langston Galloway will have to be firing on all cylinders from the outside once again to keep pace with this group.
Ultimately, everything comes down to whether the Hawks can defend without fouling. I’m sure UConn coach (and former Sixer!) Kevin Ollie has imparted to his star guard Napier the importance of taking the ball to the hoop to try to pick up some fouls on Hawks big men Halil Kanacevic and Ronald Roberts around the basket. St. Joe’s has no depth, as we saw in the conference tournament final against VCU when Phil Martelli had all 5 starters play the entire second half. If they have to start dipping into their second unit for extended minutes, the Hawks will be in trouble. However, their starting five can play with nearly any team in the nation and if they can stay out on the floor against the Huskies, it wouldn’t surprise me if we have an upset on our hands. That’s the great thing about this weekend, as Kevin Garnett would say, anything is possible.
9:25 PM: #2 Villanova (28-4, 16-2 Big East) vs. #15 Milwaukee (21-13, 7-9 Horizon) – TBS
After going ice-cold from the perimeter in an upset defeat to Seton Hall in last week’s Big East tournament, the Wildcats have been chomping at the bit to get back into action and the Panthers look to be the unfortunate victims. Milwaukee finished just 6th in the Horizon league this season, getting hot at the right time to pull off 4 straight conference tournament victories and earn an automatic berth to the big dance. During the Panthers’ non-conference schedule, the lone time they played an opponent of any significance, they were soundly defeated by 26 points at the hands of Wisconsin. I think they’ll find Villanova to be a huge step-up from the likes of Valparaiso and Wright State.
Milwaukee has struggled offensively this season, in the bottom half of the country in both FG% (43%) and 3PT% (33%). Leading scorer Jordan Aaron (15 ppg) and Austin Arians are the main threats from the perimeter for the Panthers, each shooting over half their shots behind the arc, but are both just average marksmen. One thing in Milwaukee’s favor is they are top-50 nationally in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 31.5% against them. They’ll need that aspect of their game to step up in a big way against a Villanova team that was 8th in the country with 9.0 made threes per game. Still, the Wildcats have far too many weapons offensively, and their pressure defense should cause problems for a Panthers team in the bottom-third of the nation at 13 turnovers per game. Villanova wins easily and hopefully we’ll have a city holy war on our hands come Saturday.