Is UConn worthy of a Top 20 ranking, which it attained after its 10-0 start? Certainly not at this time. Since their impressive start, Coach Jim Calhoun's squad lost on the road by 10 to a surprising West Virginia team, defeated a poor South Florida team by 19 at home, and was dominated in the second half by a very good SEC team – LSU – in Baton Rouge, ultimately losing by 17.
The Huskies have a wealth of talent. All five starters were ranked in the Top 100 by RSCI coming out of high school/prep school with four of those in the Top 60, and two of those four in the Top 40. Three of their top four reserves were also Top 100, in fact Top 60, recruits.
However, UConn is probably the least experienced team in the country. Every scholarship player is a freshman or sophomore, and only two of the sophomores saw decent playing time a year ago. Not one of them was a consistent starter during the conference portion of last season.
Nine players are averaging 14 mpg or more, led by sophomore power forward Jeff Adrien. Though undersized for his position, the 6'6" Adrien is averaging a double-double (12.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg). He combines physical strength and excellent jumping ability to make his presence felt on the boards. But his most important quality may be his relentless, aggressive approach on both offense and defense. It will be extremely difficult for MU to win unless it contains Adrien. If he scores in double figures and gets even close to double-digit rebounds, it could be a long night for Marquette. While he is not as long or as athletic as the last two power forwards MU's front line has faced, he still presents match-up problems. Whoever defends Adrien will have to match his energy and determination. The only player MU has used at the 4 to display those qualities so far is Lazar Hayward. It will be interesting to see how Coach Crean rotates individuals at this spot.
UConn's center, Hasheem Thabeet, presents an extraordinary challenge on the defensive end of the court. The 7'3" freshman is quick and athletic and has done an excellent job of both blocking opponents' shots and altering them when he can not block them. In MU's last two games, Providence's 6'10" center, Herbert Hill, blocked seven shots, and Syracuse's 6'11" center, Darryl Watkins, blocked five shots. Thabeet could cause havoc for Marquette's inside players as well as perimeter players when they drive to the hoop. It will be very tough to finish against the talented Tansanian. He's not much of a threat on offense, but he is capable of scoring off feeds from teammates and on put-backs. It will be incumbent on Barro and on whoever backs him up, to keep Thabeet away from the basket.
The Huskies are athletic and talented on the perimeter. The starting small forward, 6'6" sophomore Marcus Johnson, is every bit as athletic as Matthews, who will probably guard him, only he's a bit taller and stronger. Johnson is averaging only 22.1 mpg, but he's averaging 8.4 ppg and 4.4 rpg and shooting 51.1% from the field. He's not a perimeter threat, but he likes to drive to the hoop. He is also a quality defender who will give Matthews problems when he has the ball.
One starting guard is sophomore A. J. Price. Following a year as a medical red-shirt and a second year sitting out for the infamous lap-top thefts, Price is finally on the court for the Huskies. He has done a nice job of running the offense (5.4 apg and an assist/turnover ratio of 2.5/1.0). However, he can also score (12.0 ppg). He's not much of a threat from behind the arc as he's averaged exactly one made three-pointer per game on 32.1% shooting. Still, James will have his hands full because Price is quick and strong and capable of getting a step on his man and finding open teammates. He also is dangerous in transition.
At the 2 guard, Calhoun starts freshman Jerome Dyson, who is averaging a team-leading 13.4 ppg. Dyson isn't shy as he's taken an average of one shot every two and a half minutes. However, he's shooting only 39.0% overall, including a mediocre 32.1% from three-point range. Still, he's dangerous driving to the hoop as well as in transition. He is also an excellent defender. Calhoun has already compared his play on the defensive end to that of some of the top defenders he's had at Storrs. If Dyson and McNeal guard each other, it could turn into a real war.
UConn's bench is deep and extremely athletic. The top reserve in the backcourt is freshman Doug Wiggins, the same Doug Wiggins who originally committed to St. John's but then changed his mind and chose his state school instead. Wiggins is exceptionally quick. He is also about as fast going coast to coast as anyone in the conference. While he thrives in the open court and attacks the basket fearlessly, he is also a threat from the outside as he is hitting a respectable 39.5% on treys. His average of 8.2 ppg in only 18.2 mpg is impressive as is his assist/turnover ratio of 1.4/1.0. Calhoun is said to really love the way this freshman plays, and so do UConn fans. There is, in essence, virtually no drop off when he comes into the game, either to replace one of the starting guards or play alongside them in a three-guard lineup.
Up front, another freshman, Stanley Robinson, has done a nice job off the bench. The 6'9" Alabama native is a bit thin at 210 pounds, but he makes up for his lack of strength with amazing leaping ability and quickness. He is a big-time athlete, who could give Marquette's forwards fits. His specialties are crashing the offensive glass for put-back jams and throwing down rim-rattling dunks in transition. MU doesn't have anyone on its roster who can match his combination of height, quickness, and leaping ability. Robinson loves to scream when he scores off an explosive slam. If MU doesn't get a body on him and keep him off the boards, he could do a lot of screaming Wednesday night.
Sophomore combo guard Craig Austrie also averages double-figure minutes (14.6 mpg). He has become a solid outside shooter (44.4% on treys), and he handles the ball (assist/turnover ratio of 1.4/1.0). MU can not afford to leave him open on the perimeter. If they do, he can make them pay.
While there is no questioning the level of athleticism or talent on the Huskies, the individual and team stats are suspect due to the cream-puff non-conference schedule. It will be considerably more difficult for the young players to score, rebound, and block shots against Big East competition than it was against their first 10 opponents. Still, UConn does lead the country in blocked shots, and in Thabeet, Adrien, and Robinson, they have three guys who can stuff opponents' shots back in their face or knock them into the stands.
It will be fascinating to see what Calhoun decides to do on defense. The venerable, crusty, hall of fame coach loves to play aggressive man to man, especially with this team. His perimeter players are aggressive on defense and use their quickness to pressure ball handlers and deny passing lanes. They can afford to make occasional mistakes and get beaten off the dribble because Thabeet is usually around the hoop to erase those mistakes.
Of course, the book on Marquette is to play a zone, pack it in, and force them to beat you from the outside. After games of 4 for 23 and 4 for 21 from behind the arc, it would make sense to follow that prescription. But Calhoun might just be too stubborn, or too committed to his defensive philosophy with this squad to compromise.
MU must be wary of UConn's ability to attack the offensive glass. Coach Crean's troops must do a much better job of keeping the Huskies' big men away from the offensive boards. Marquette must also do a good job of playing transition defense because Connecticut's guards will push the ball up the court every chance they get. MU must force the Huskies to play in the half court to have any chance to win.
It is a bit early in the season to call any game a "must win," but Marquette can not afford to begin the conference season 0-3 with two of the next three games on the road along with a tough home game against West Virginia. Similarly, the Huskies want to avoid a home loss in what they have to perceive as a very winnable game.
At this point, UConn has to be considered the favorite. It will take maximum effort and much-improved play for Marquette to come out of Storrs with a "W."
**Eric Silver, aka "Silver Warrior", is a prominent poster at MarquetteHoops.com. He is also a contributing writer for CHN - College Hoops Network.