Friday, March 28, 2014

A Closer Look At UConn

Shabazz Napier, a freshman on 2011 national championship team, returns to Madison Square Garden to further progress toward bookending his UConn career with another trophy. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

With the start of the East regional now less than 24 hours away, one team remains to be profiled after our initial looks at Virginia, Iowa State and Michigan State, and it is one who is familiar with their surroundings going into their next challenge under a young coach who has already made quick work silencing whatever doubters he had left after replacing a Hall of Fame mentor at the helm of a national powerhouse.

Connecticut Huskies (28-8, No. 7 seed)
Last Sweet 16 Appearance: 2011 (won national championship)
How They Got Here: Defeated No. 10 seed Saint Joseph's 89-81 in overtime on March 20, defeated No. 2 seed Villanova 77-65 on March 22 (both games in Buffalo, NY)
What They Bring To The Table: A typical UConn team, relying on its backcourt to carry them through a terrain the Huskies know all too well from their many deep runs through March under the legendary Jim Calhoun. Senior point guard Shabazz Napier, a freshman understudy to Kemba Walker three years ago when UConn shocked the world and won five games in as many days to capture the Big East tournament as a No. 9 seed before winning another six straight to deliver a third national championship to Storrs, makes the motor run and makes no bones about it with his 18-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist per game averages; and more often than not, as he goes, so too do the Huskies. However, junior Ryan Boatright has emerged as the Napier to Shabazz's own Walker through this season, as the Chicagoan averages 12 points per game and is equally as adept at knocking down a three-ball, connecting at a 38 percent rate from behind the line.

The difference between UConn three years ago and UConn this year, you ask? The emergence of a third scoring option on the wing, as DeAndre Daniels has blossomed into a long and underrated force of a swingman, coming from out of seemingly nowhere to average 12 points per game and shooting a torrid 45 percent from beyond the arc. If that's not enough, German import Niels Giffey is even more efficient, shooting 52 percent from long range to supplement a 57 percent clip from the field.

Where They Have An Advantage: Not just in the backcourt, where Napier and Boatright should be able to neutralize DeAndre Kane against Iowa State before worrying about a potential regional final showdown with either Virginia or Michigan State, but also with their backdrop for the weekend. UConn is basically playing a de facto home game with the Madison Square Garden draw, having competed in the 2K Sports Classic in November, a tournament which the Huskies won, and is intimately acquainted with the "World's Most Famous Arena" by virtue of its epic battles of Big East tournaments past. The expected crowd advantage will also play heavily into UConn's favor, a factor that few teams are able to successfully parlay into a victory.

Where They May Struggle: In the paint, especially if seven-foot freshman Amida Brimah is hacked into foul trouble, forcing Phillip Nolan and seldom-used Tyler Olander to step in for a team that has not been able to lean on the depth that was a long-standing Calhoun trademark as much under Kevin Ollie, as only eight Huskies average double-figure minutes, five of which seeing 20 or more minutes per game. Against Iowa State, this may not be as much of an issue given the Cyclones will be playing without Georges Niang, but could be problematic against either Virginia or Michigan State, whose rotations are much more methodical in wearing opposing teams down.

Keys To Victory Against Iowa State: Number one: Stop DeAndre Kane. Kevin Ollie's first piece of game film should be the final four minutes of Iowa State's comeback win over North Carolina this past Sunday, a stretch that served as Kane's introduction to the masses as the Cyclones rallied from an eight-point deficit to join the party in the Big Apple. Second, Brimah needs to establish himself, an easier order in the absence of Niang for Fred Hoiberg's Big 12 champions. Expect to see more of Melvin Ejim inside, and even though Brimah holds a six-inch size advantage, he does not have to do it all himself. All the Ghanaian needs to do is get in front of him in the post, and if trapped at any moment, kick it out to Daniels or Giffey. Should UConn do that, we could be in line for another magic moment from a longtime producer of New York-tinged postseason drama.

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