No. 2 UConn begins difficult stretch by hosting Villanova

UConn head coach Dan Hurley reacts during the first half of a Dec. 20 game against Georgetown in Storrs. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

UConn’s status in the college basketball world has improved considerably since the last time Big East rival Villanova visited.

Back on Feb. 22, the Huskies went into the game determined to make a statement against the then-No. 8 Wildcats.

UConn ended a five-game losing streak in the series thanks to R.J. Cole’s game winning basket with 5.9 seconds left for a 71-69 win.

Now the Huskies (13-0, 2-0), ranked second in the country, are in a frontrunner’s position as they prepare to host Villanova (7-5, 1-0) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday (FS1) at a sold-out XL Center in Hartford.

“We usually are the hunters,” junior Andre Jackson said after Tuesday’s practice at Gampel Pavilion. “This year, it’s a little bit more like we’re the hunted. We’re still hunting, of course, but it’s definitely a different approach.”

Off to their best start since the 1998-99 national championship season, the Huskies returned from a short holiday break rested and recharged. They resumed practice on Monday.

Odds are that UConn players got a hefty dose of congratulatory pats on the back and way to go from friends and family.

The Huskies ignored the praise.

“They were excited back home, but it goes in one ear and out the other,” sophomore Jordan Hawkins said. “I’m not really paying attention to that. You can’t win anything in December.”

Coach Dan Hurley reminded his players that they’re basically just getting started.

Now is not the time to show cracks in the armor, especially with the most difficult part of the schedule dead ahead. After hosting Villanova, they visit No. 22 Xavier on Saturday, travel to Providence on Jan. 4 and host Creighton Jan. 7.

“Every second of every day you’re just so hyper aware as a coach of any little crack in preparation or in culture or in the we season mentality,” Hurley said. “And you’re even more aware when you come back from being away the last couple days because you really just don’t know what anyone is telling them.”

Prior to the break, the Huskies received a reminder of what can happen if there’s any dropoff in energy and effort.

They were outworked at times and out-rebounded by Georgetown on Dec. 20, needing to rally from a second half deficit for the first time this season to pull out an 11-point victory.

“If we make those mistakes again with the upcoming schedule, we won’t be as fortunate,” Hurley said.

Villanova has the ability to make UConn pay for its mistakes.

The Wildcats have won six of the last seven meetings in the series, including taking two out of three last season.

Villanova is playing its best basketball, riding a five-game winning streak since the return of Big East preseason freshman of the year Cam Whitmore. The Wildcats are gradually getting healthier, but All-Big East preseason second team selection Justin Moore remains sidelined.

First-year head coach Kyle Neptune, who replaced Hall of Famer Jay Wright, is in charge of a team that advanced to the Final Four last season and were picked to finish third in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, one spot ahead of UConn.

Hurley called the Wildcats one of the best offensive teams that UConn will play all year.

“They have a lot of really top level blue chip recruits and guys that have championships and gotten to the Final Four,” Hurley said. “You can see the improvement that they made. They had a really hard schedule and now they’re playing a lot better.”

Unlike past years, Hurley isn’t putting extra emphasis on the Villanova game. The Wildcats have either won or shared seven of the last nine Big East regular season titles.

UConn feels good about its position in the college basketball landscape.

“In the past, when the program was growing and improving, when we looked at some of the match-ups against the bigger brand programs we made it more than it was,” Hurley said. “For us, we know we’re playing a quality opponent in a really tough league game and it’s one of 18 we have left and every one is critical, home or away.

“We’ve obviously got a better team (than last season) and we’re coming into game 14 in a strong position.”

News and notes

Freshman center Donovan Clingan lost a tooth against Georgetown during his first Big East game. One Hoya loosened his tooth with an elbow and another knocked it out with an elbow.

“I guess he didn’t know the Whalers left,” Hurley said. “He looked like a hockey player.” Clingan already has had the tooth replaced. … Sophomore Samson Johnson (foot) continues to improve, but he’s not ready for game action. “He’s getting better,” Hurley said. “He’s done some non-live drills. We’ve just got to see how his foot progresses.”

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<strong id=”strong-e8280e2aa66958601e2e1562a408c536″>No. 2 UCONN vs. VILLANOVA</strong>

Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip: 6:30 p.m. (FS1)

Records: UConn 13-0, 2-0; Villanova 7-5, 1-0

Last game: UConn beat Georgetown, 84-73, Dec. 20; Villanova defeated St. John’s, 78-63, Dec. 21

Probable starters; UConn, 6-5 sr. guard Tristen Newton (10.2 pts, 4.5 rebs, 4.5 assists), 6-6 jr. guard Andre Jackson (5.6 pts, 6 rebs, 5.1 assists), 6-5 so. guard Jordan Hawkins (14.3 pts), 6-8 r-fr. forward Alex Karaban (9.4 pts, 3.8 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Adama Sanogo (18.6 pts, 7.2 rebs)

Villanova, 6-4 sr. guard Chris Arcidiacono (5.1 pts), 6-2 fr. guard Mark Armstrong (5.1 pts), 6-4 grad guard Caleb Daniels (15.7 pts, 5.3 rebs), 6-8 grad forward Brandon Slater (11.8 pts, 5.5 rebs), 6-8 r-jr. forward Eric Dixon (16.1 pts, 6.1 rebs)

Noteworthy: Huskies 13-0 start the program’s best since going 19-0 in 1998-99, the national championship season. … Series: UConn trails 39-32, splitting the last two meetings – losing 63-60 in Big East tourney semifinals on March 11, winning 71-69 on Feb. 22 in Hartford. Hurley was ejected in the first half of that win, leaving associate head coach Kimani Young in charge. … After a 2-5 start, the Wildcats won five straight. Own 7-1 record when holding foes under 70 points. … Huskies one of three undefeated teams in the nation along with Purdue and New Mexico. … Top reserve: 6-7 fr. forward Cam Whitmore (12.4 pts, 6.2 rebs). … Slater scored in double figures in each of the last three games vs. UConn. … Hot: UConn ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring margin (3rd), assists per game (6th), rebounding margin (7th). Cold: Jackson is 7 for 24 (29 percent) from 3-pt range. … Balanced attack: Six players are averaging at least nine points per game. …. The Huskies have trailed only 42 minutes, 53 seconds, out of 520 total minutes this season. … Up next: UConn visits No. 22 Xavier in Cincinnati for a noon game on New Year’s Eve day.

Gavin Keefe