BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Connecticut and Villanova are no longer in the same conference, but they are not strangers. They know exactly what to expect from each other in the NCAA tournament.
"We know it's going to be a grinding, Big East-style basketball game," Connecticut's Ryan Boatright said. "It's really been like that all year. SMU played like that, Cincinnati played like that. We didn't lose [that style], we just don't have the title Big East team."
The Huskies, seeded seventh in the East Region, and the No. 2 seed Wildcats go at it again tonight at First Niagara Center. They'll play for old times' sake and a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"It's just another Big East game," Villanova's Darrun Hilliard said. "They've been out of the league for a year, but it's going to be another big-time, Big East game.
Hilliard's teammate, James Bell, added, "It's going to be real physical."
Connecticut moved into the American Athletic Conference and Villanova (29-4) stayed with the other non-football schools to form the core of the new Big East. The Wildcats went 16-2 in the conference but lost to Seton Hall in the league tournament. Long considered a candidate for a No. 1 seed, Villanova got a No. 2 behind Virginia in this regional.
"Our kids are dialed in because they have great respect for the tradition," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Connecticut, they know. This is going to be a heck of a battle. Just to think about it, two guys who started for Connecticut last year [Tyler Olander and Omar Calhoun] come off the bench now. Each guy has stayed and gotten better.
"We've got a heck of a challenge; hopefully we've gotten better, too."
Connecticut (27-8) last played Villanova Feb. 16, 2013, at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn., just a few days after an emotional win against Syracuse. The Wildcats played hard and tough, outrebounded Connecticut, 41-25, and won, 70-61. The teams have played 63 times and Villanova leads, 33-30.
"I remember they were beasts down low," Boatright said. "They were relentless on the glass."
Said teammate Niels Giffey: "They're a scrappy team and they bring the game to you. They don't sit back and wait for shots to fall."
A year earlier, the Huskies came from far behind to beat Villanova in Philadelphia on Shabazz Napier's memorable winning shot in overtime.
"I don't think they're going to sit back and remember anything we did two years ago," Napier said. "They understand we've gotten better, and they've gotten better."
The key figure in Villanova's win last year was Ryan Arcidiacono, who burned the Huskies from the perimeter with 25 points. This, for Connecticut, is where it starts tonight, even though Arcidiacono isn't shooting quite as well as a sophomore. The Wildcats have taken nearly as many 3-pointers (824) as 2-pointers (852), and are shooting 35.5 percent on 3s.
"They're an amazing 3-point shooting team," Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. "So we're going to have our work cut out for us. We've got to play [JayVaughn] Pinkston down low, that's what gives them their balance. That's what makes them so tough to guard.
Pinkston, 6 feet 7, 260 pounds, is the kind of brawny frontcourt player that has given Connecticut's lanky frontcourt some trouble. DeAndre Daniels, who scored 18 points against Saint Joseph's in the Huskies' overtime win Thursday, and Amida Brimah, who made critical plays down the stretch in that game, will need to offset Villanova's frontcourt.
"If teams are going to be really aggressive in taking away your 3s, then you've got to have an answer for that," Wright said.
The Huskies have a similar offensive philosophy; though they don't shoot the 3-pointer quite as much as Villanova, they do tend to rely on it, sometimes over-rely on it when their inside game is not working. But more often than not, the Huskies have found a way.
"You feel familiar with Villanova," Ollie said. "You've played against them. But at the end of the day, it's a basketball game. We've gone through everything, and I believe in these kids, and they believe in themselves. Until that last zero goes, we're going to play. That's the great thing about this team."