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What to watch for: Villanova-Connecticut

Pittsburgh-Georgetown was supposed to be the first marquee Big East matchup of the season.

Pitt was ready for the game. Georgetown was not.

So the Big East waited a week for a pair of headline matchups. In the preseason, Monday night’s Syracuse-Pitt game was a natural one to promote with the Panthers and Orange predicted to be in the league’s top three.

Villanova-Connecticut (ESPN, 3:30 ET) would’ve been projected as nothing more than a decent undercard.

Not anymore.

Connecticut’s Kemba Walker has single-handedly made the Huskies relevant this season with his MVP play in the Maui Invitational in wins over Michigan State and Kentucky, as well as two game-changing shots to beat Texas a week ago in Austin.

Villanova, predicted to be in the thick of a three-team race with Pitt and Syracuse, has lost only once, to Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off final in November. The Wildcats didn’t handle the Vols’ defensive pressure in that game and there were times against Maryland on Saturday that the Wildcats looked overmatched. But that was before a 19-0 run spun the game in Villanova’s favor. Don’t expect that kind of run by either team in what should be a typical Big East midseason affair.

What’s at stake for Villanova? The Wildcats will learn a lot about where they stand in the Big East race over the next six games. Nova goes from Connecticut to Syracuse this week before ending a three-game road swing with a Jan. 26 trip to Providence. A three-game homestand follows against three of the tougher teams for the Wildcats -- Georgetown, Marquette and West Virginia. All three teams match up well with Villanova’s strength in the backcourt.

What’s at stake for Connecticut? The Huskies aren’t in much danger of missing the NCAA tourney by virtue of their signature nonconference wins over Wichita State, Michigan State, Kentucky and Texas, all outside of their home state. But the Big East race for the Huskies is a bit tenuous since they are already down two road games. Connecticut can’t afford to drop a home Big East game. The Tennessee game Saturday in Hartford helps with the NCAA berth/seeding, but has no bearing on the Big East title chase. UConn won’t get another crack at Pitt, but does get Syracuse at home Feb. 2 without having to go to the Carrier Dome. This is also the only time the Huskies will face the Wildcats. Tough road stops at Marquette, St. John’s, Louisville, Cincinnati and West Virginia are still on tap. If the assumption is the Huskies will drop a few of those road contests, then this game is critical in keeping the Huskies alive in the Big East chase.

Matchups to watch: Clearly, the guards are the headline with Walker and Shabazz Napier going against Villanova’s Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns. The Philadelphia Daily News reported Dominic Cheek is out due to a left knee sprain incurred in the Maryland game. So that depletes the Nova rotation, but the Wildcats still have plenty to offer. In the end, the matchup inside of Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena against Alex Oriakhi and Niels Giffey could be the game-changer. If the Cats can control the backboard, they have a great shot to win.

Atmosphere: This game is at Gampel Pavilion and the comparison between Gampel and Hartford’s XL Center isn’t even worthy of debate. It’s a similar deal with Villanova at the Pavilion compared to the Wells Fargo Center. There are more fans at the latter, but the pro arena can be sterile. An on-campus venue for this Nova-UConn matchup makes it even more tantalizing.