NCAA 2nd Round Preview: UConn

Stanford and Connecticut have just a little bit of history. The two squared off in important games in 1998 and '99, and they both chased late blooming recruit Emeka Okafor in the spring of 2001. The Huskies have won all three of those battles, but the big battle comes Saturday in Spokane. Both teams are defensive standouts, but young and inconsistent.

If you think Stanford has been a stupefying Jekyl & Hyde team this year, then get a load of UConn.  They recorded wins twice against Syracuse and once at Notre Dame, but dropped games to non-NCAA teams including Providence, Virginia Tech, Miami and Villanova.  Perhaps both teams have been so hit-and-miss because they both are young teams lacking some veteran scoring power due to early NBA departures.  Much has been made of the Cardinal's first ever underclass losses when Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt were first round draft picks last June, but Connecticut also lost a key talent when Caron Butler bolted.  And because each team loses one key senior after this year (though both have elite sophomore talents the NBA would love to sink their teeth into), both programs see next season as a banner year.  But both are here now, and one team will get an early start on tomorrow's success with a Sweet Sixteen berth today.

UConn loves to play their offense in an up-tempo fashion, and with such a successful defense get a lot of opportunities to get out and run after stops.  They have a variety of defensive sets, but many of them allow their guards and wings to overplay their targets with aggressive point-of-attack pressure.  They get away with such a risky scheme because they have all-world eraser Emeka Okafor roving around under the basket.  That defensive gameplan sounds all too similar to what has hurt Stanford this year - see the North Carolina and Washington (away) games for prima facia evidence.  The myth today is that Stanford can't handle teams that offensively like to run up and down the floor, but it is still very true that hellraising defensive pressure can totally take the Card out of their sets.  And then the guards start forcing bad shots instead of running the offense, which is bad bad news.

In evaluating this game, regardless of whether you are a Stanford fan or a UConn fan, it's intellectually inept to measure the chances of your team Saturday based on the strength of their performance Thursday.  Who outside of the #1 seeds on Thursday really did acquit themselves as a rock-solid high seed?  Nada.  As much as Stanford was sweating the final couple dicey minutes against San Diego, the Huskies felt the hot breath of the Cougars down the stretch.  Neither team played a complete game they would like, but somebody is going to win this sucker Saturday, folks.  Both teams have had up-and-down seasons with high highs and very low lows.  The key question is who steps up Saturday with an "up" game... 

The Starters

#12 PG Taliek Brown Jr 6-1 185 7.7 ppg 4.8 apg 44.5% FG
#4 SG Ben Gordon So 6-2 185 19.4 ppg 4.9 apg 41.1% 3FG
#33 SF Denham Brown Fr 6-5 220 7.8 ppg 3.4 rpg 41.7% 3FG
#11 PF Hilton Armstrong Fr 6-10 210 2.9 ppg 3.0 rpg 54.5% FG
#50 C Emeka Okafor So 6-9 240 15.6 ppg 10.9 rpg 58.1% FG

You heard all about how UConn survived the middle of the conference season while missing Jim Calhoun to prostate cancer surgery for four games, but you may not have picked up on the fact that they were missing starting point guard Taliek Brown for four games in February with a broken finger.  Even when he came back, he played single digit minutes in two of his late-season games.  A great overall talent who can score in bunches, but more importantly provides an athletic playmaking threat who can create great scoring opportunities for his talented teammates.  Brown has logged double digit assist totals throughout his career, where he has started all three seasons at Connecticut.  Loves to play at a fast pace and really excels in fastbreak situations.  His one glaring weakness is his lack of shooting range, almost never taking a shot beyond the arc (1-of-17 on the year).  A McDonald's All-American out of high school, and he looks every bit of it today.  Scored just six points Thursday vs. BYU, all on free throws after whiffing on all seven shots from the field in 31 minutes.  UConn can't beat Stanford if Brown plays that way on Saturday.

The leading scorer for the Huskies is combo guard Ben Gordon, who starts at the '2' but can handle the ball and run the team whenever needed.  He is a versatile scorer who has the athleticism to create his shot against good defenders outside, but can drive and create inside.  Just one of those guys who has a knack for scoring regardless of where he is on the floor.  And he'll be on the floor for big minutes, leading his team in that category.  Most amazing stat is his assist average, which is eye-catching for someone who plays like a true shooting guard and puts up almost 20 each game.  Had a game Thursday that closely mirrored Julius Barnes' first round game, totaling 14 points but doing so on 4-of-12 shooting and four turnovers.  But that's what you get from Ben Gordon every once in a while, who chucks up 14.4 shots per game.  He has taken 18 or more shots nine times this year.  By comparison, Barnes puts up the most shots for Stanford per game at 13.2.

The other Brown (actually, there are three on this roster) is Denham Brown, who has scored in double figures ten times this season as a freshman.  And no other freshman has impacted this young team like Brown, starting 26 games.  He is a sharpshooting wing who scored more than 100 points in a high school game and who looks like an upperclassmen in the fast transition game.  His style is very well suited to a team that loves to get up and down the floor and play at a frenetic pace.  In the halfcourt game, though, he'll have a hard time matching up with Josh Childress.  All eyes will be on Gordon, Robertson and Okafor, but this guy feels like an X-factor for Saturday.  Played a ho-hum game Thursday, with seven points in 20 minutes, including 1-of-4 shooting outside.

The starter you should least consider is Hilton Armstrong, simply because he plays token minutes.  The big though lean freshman helps to take a little pressure of Okafor, given that this team is short on size.  But just as Mike Montgomery is leery of Matt Haryasz' ability to log many minutes at his current meek frame, so too does Jim Calhoun keep Armstrong largely on the bench.  Starts out of necessity to give opponents the appearance of starting size in the Husky frontcourt, but he gets a quick hook.  Averages just 11 minutes per game, and that has been on the decline for the last month or so.  Since the end of the Big East regular season, he has played just six minutes per game.  Sure, he's long.  But he has almost three times as many fouls as blocks this year.  No surprise that Armstrong played a mere four minutes Thursday with no points and no attempts.  

In my preview of the San Diego game, I told you to shift your singular focus away from Jason Keep and instead be more wary of Jason Blair, who was the team's most talented all-around player.  In a quick bit of self-aggrandizing commentary, I was right.  Blair was the consistent scoring threat throughout the game.  So you might repeat the process of departing from conventional wisdom, and see if there is somebody more important to key on in this game other than Emeka Okafor.  And... the answer is no.  Okafor is the real deal and is the truest definition of a "game changer" if there is one in college basketball today.  At 6'9" he is not what you think of when you picture the great shotblockers in college basketball, but his timing is perhaps the best in the business.  And his blocks come with his arms stretched vertically rather than taking wild swats at the ball.  Averages 4.8 rejections per game, which is more than a block better than the entire Stanford team.  You absolutely cannot overstate his impact defensively on a game, and he's a big reason the Huskies are one of the top defensive teams in the land.  Offensively, he's improving quickly and has a very respectable shooting touch out to about eight feet.  Decent moves with his back to the basket, but overall you would call him "raw" at this stage in his career.  One significant deficiency is his passing out of the low post.  Calhoun is talking up Okafor's foul trouble and how he politicks with officials every game, but the truth is that his star center has played in the mid-to-high 30's in a lot of games this year.  Cry us a river, Jimmy.  Had a typically All-American game Thursday with 20 points, eight boards, seven blocks and hit for 8-of-13 shooting from the field.  May be a high lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, if Okafor wants to come out.  Though the academically minded sophomore has said before that he wants to finish his degree first, and is on a three-year plan.  That's why Husky fans are already talking about a title run next year.

The Bench

#32 G Tony Robertson Sr 6-2 200 9.9 ppg 3.2 rpg 41.2% 3FG
#31 SF Rashad Anderson Fr 6-4 190 8.2 ppg 1.2 rpg 39.4% 3FG
#23 PF Marcus White Fr 6-8 215 4.1 ppg 5.7 rpg 40.0% FG

Robertson and White may carry the label of bench players, but they both play big minutes and big roles on this team.  Tony Robertson is the only significant senior on this young roster, and it's a little surprising that he comes off the bench when you remember his accolades coming out of high school.  The answer there is that Roberston has made some poor off the court decisions, and only started this year during the games when Taliek brown could not with his broken finger.  That doesn't mitigate the fact that he can score off the bench and attacks defenses mercilessly.  Unconventional shooter who gives the appearance of a herky-jerky lack of control, but he hits for good percentages.  Watch him take defenders off the dribble and slash to the basket.  Though he comes off the bench, he plays 24 minutes per game and is third on the team in scoring.  Had his most invisible game of the year Thursday when he failed to score for the first time, 0-for-4 from the field in 19 minutes.

Another player who outscores several starters is freshman wing Rashad Anderson, who is a threat much like classmate Denham Brown.  Anderson is a little more raw in his overall consistency, though, and thus is coming off the bench.  But watch this guy as another X-factor who can win games all by himself.  When Anderson is feeling it, he'll put up shots against any defense and defender, and he'll hit 'em.  Has hit four or more treys five times in his rookie season and broken 20 points three times.  Most recently shot 7-of-11 in the Big East semifinal upset of Syracuse, totaling 21 points.  Like so many Huskies, he had a poor game Thursday with just three points on one trey in 16 minutes of play (1-of-5 overall shooting).  But he's very dangerous.

Marcus White is the one talented big man the Huskies can bring off the bench, and he is the most rapidly improved player on a very young team.  His minutes have shot up over the last month and a half, and recorded a career high with 31 minutes in that Syracase game last week.  Despite bench minutes, he has cleared double digits in rebounding four times.  When you extrapolate his rebounding numbers to 40 minutes of play, he come in just a shade shy of 14 boards per game.  That efficiency is better than Okafor or Stanford's own stellar forwards.  Great game with a lot of energy and hustle on Thursday, racking up nine boards and eight points in 28 minutes.  Wouldn't surprise me if he started Saturday in place of Armstrong.  He was a steal for UConn when he requested release from his Letter of Intent last year to DePaul and committed to the Huskies just last summer.

The Skinny

Individual matchups don't look all that favorable for Stanford.  If you put Barnes up against Taliek Brown, Ben Gordon might smoke Matt Lottich.  Tony Robertson could be big trouble for Lottich, as well.  I believe either Lottich will defend Brown and leave Barnes to defend a player quite like himself in Gordon (or Robertson), or Stanford will whip out the 1-1-3 zone to defend spaces rather than players.  The one thing fans seldom grasp about the zone defense, though, is that it's nearly impossible to set it up off an offensive miss.  UConn is double trouble in this dimension, given how much they love to pick up the pace pushing the ball off defensive stops.  If Montgomery wants to use the zone, his players have to take smart shots and make baskets to allow them to setup the 1-1-3.  I have doubts about Stanford hitting a lot of shots against a team that allows just 38% from the field and 32.5% from deep.  Though to be fair, Stanford has held teams to 40% shooting overall and 30% from three-point range...

I think you have to put Justin Davis on Okafor in this game right off the bat.  Armstrong isn't an offensive threat, and that should allow Rob Little to uncharacteristically get away with guarding a high post player.  Okafor is UConn's best rebounder, but Justin Davis is honestly a little better on the boards.  When Calhoun pulls Marcus White off the bench to play alongside Okafor, that's when the Davis has to move outside and Little will have to matchup against the All-American.  Stopping Okafor on offense isn't really the key, but given the very spotty offense we have seen from Davis and Little in the last month, it's tough to expect them to find the hoop against the nation's best interior defender.  Marcus White is a serious talent, as well, and will pull down his share of rebounds.

That leaves question marks in the backcourt and frontcourt, but Josh Childress could remain a key for the Cardinal out at the wing.  He has shown the most consistent offensive production on this team all year, and was the one guy to come through in both halves of play Thursday for Stanford.  He will matchup against a pair of very athletic but young and smaller wings in this game, and he needs to dominate.  Both players like to slash, so if possible he needs to cheat away from them defensively to help rebound inside.  Offensively, this is a game where the super sophomore needs to find his stroke, with opportunities inside a little harder to come by.  Remember that Childress' favorite move is to drive the baseline or attack from the top of the key at the basket, but what happens when he finds Emeka Okafor at the hoop?  Should be a literal and figurative clash of two of the best sophomores in the country when those two collide in this exciting NCAA second round match.

As a holistic note, scouting of this UConn team reveals a horde of talent that has underachieved with a lot of bad losses this year.  They are young and have that excuse, but this late in the year, their freshmen are effectively sophomores, and their sophomores are seasoned veterans.  This feels like the North Carolina game in the 2000 Tournament where the Card ran up against a team loaded with talent who put it together just in time for a Final Four run.  The Huskies may not have that longevity in this tourney, but they certainly have the ability at all positions to possibly dominate the Cardinal.  To stay in the game, Stanford has to defend hard early and often for 40 minutes, and play within themselves on offense.  Those sound like coaching clichés, but I believe them for this game.  Stanford, and Julius Barnes in particular, has forgotten their offense when they have forced too much this year, and they need to patiently work the ball around for good looks and strong position down low.

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