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Thoughts of Big East still in the air

In time the links will loosen and the memories will grow hazy and an NCAA Tournament matchup between Villanova and UConn will evoke little in the way of sentiment, scant longing for the good old days. But with it having been but a year since the Big East dissolved and reformed, with recollections of past wars still vivid, tonight’s reuniting of the Wildcats and the Huskies in the NCAA East Regional is a traditionalist’s dream.

“It’s going to be an old Big East showdown, and we’ve just got to come out and fight,” said UConn forward DeAndre Daniels.

“Syracuse, Connecticut, they brought an extra edge to our league that we kind of miss,” said Villanova guard James Bell. “It’s great playing them again.”

Tonight’s pairing of UConn and Villanova comes 13 months after their last meeting, a 70-61 Wildcats victory in Hartford under the Big East umbrella. UConn now belongs to the American Athletic Conference. Villanova toils in a retooled Big East. Their lone common opponent this season was Saint Joseph’s, the team UConn drew in Thursday’s opening round and ousted, 89-81, in overtime; the team Villanova shredded by 30 early in the season.

Both teams return four starters from their meeting of a year ago, but a major dynamic has changed. Villanova won the rebounding battle in that game, 40-24, including a monstrous 19-5 edge at the offensive end. Most of the damage was inflicted by 6-10 Mouphtaou Yarou, now departed, which presented this year’s Wildcats the challenge of compensation. Still, they ranked 52nd nationally in rebounding, far ahead of UConn at 178.

“This is a different team from last year, so we just got to come out and do the things which we do best, which is rebound, play defense, get stops and get in transition,” said Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston. “We’re an undersized team, but we rebound with the best of them.”

UConn talks the same talk. They’ll strive to hold their own on the boards against a Villanova team that can confound because it has shot more threes (801 during the regular season) than all but three teams in the nation. The Huskies are also in the unusual position of having a 6-foot-1 guard as their top rebounder. Shabazz Napier, the AAC Player of the Year, leads UConn at 5.9 per game.

“Our rebounds have been up and down,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “Earlier in the season, we wasn’t rebounding the ball particularly well. We got in conference, and I don’t know what got into us. We started rebounding the ball like no other. And then it dipped down towards the end of the season.”

“They shoot three-pointers and when you miss, the ball comes out it’s coming off hard,” Napier said of Villanova. “So we got to be able to get on the threes and make sure we get the long rebounds.”

UConn’s first order of business is creating rebound opportunities by getting out to the perimeter and limiting Villanova’s open looks from behind the arc. Ryan Arcidiacono blitzed them for 25 last year, going 5 of 8 from long range, but the Wildcats are just 8 of 42 from three in the postseason.

“We just got to take them with confidence because we practice them so much, we have so much confidence in our shooting that we can get hot,” Arcidiacono said. “I think if one person makes one hopefully we’ll carry it over.”

“We’re going to be right in their face,” Ollie said. “That’s the respect we have for a great three-point shooting team.”

The winner advances to the Sweet Sixteen at a site awash with Big East memories – Madison Square Garden.