Big Monday Preview - UConn at Syracuse

When Marcus Williams returned to the UConn lineup, it was supposed to solidify the Huskies as the prime contender to take on Duke this season. His wizard-like ball-handling and clutch shooting was the final piece missing from the puzzle, as the Huskies had been run by freshman Craig Austrie, an untested but solid player, for the first 12 games of the season. Instead, Steve Novak and Marquette handled then No. 2 UConn 94-79 in one of the season's biggest upsets.

Since then, the Huskies have picked up three tough wins against lesser opponents, squeaking by LSU 67-66 on a runner by Williams with 20 seconds to play, followed by a 70-59 victory over Cincinnati in which the game was closer than the final score would indicate and on Saturday a 74-67 win against Georgetown.  The one trend to all of these games, though, has been the emergence of a powerful inside game for the Huskies in the person of Hilton Armstrong.


Early this season the Huskies pulled of a last-second victory in the Maui Invitational title game over Adam Morrison and Gonzaga when Denham Brown nailed a short hook with 1.1 seconds to go, serving notice that the preseason hype the Huskies had been receiving was well deserved.  The win came on the heels of season-opening victories over Pepperdine, Arkansas and a solid if not spectacular Arizona team.


Upon returning to the mainland, the Huskies used a balanced scoring attack, with different players emerging in different games to lead the way, as they cruised through a less-than-impressive portion of the schedule, with the closest margin being a 14 point win over Army on November 29.


Over the years, UConn has relied predominantly on a dominant swingman as the key to the offense, and this season Jim Calhoun's bunch features a wing player simply oozing with potential (and the probable number one pick in this year's NBA Draft) in Rudy Gay.  Gay is a spectacular athlete who can take over games at times, but so far this season has proven inconsistent, notching several games where he has failed to hit double-figures and struggling from the field, connecting on just 42.9% of his attempts.


Still, the overall numbers have been solid for Gay, leading the team with 15.3 points-per-game and pulling in 6.2 boards every outing.  Gay is different from the great wings of UConn's past, though, as he lacks the shooting touch of Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, and even Caron Butler.


Gay certainly has the ability to hit from the outside, as he showed during his freshman season when he knocked down 46.7% from beyond the arc (28-of-60), but so far this year his percentage has plummeted to just 27% from deep.  Gay has all of the tools to be a dominant scorer, but so far he's only shown flashes, like when he poured in a career-best 28 points versus Arkansas.  Still, even with his struggles from the outside, Gay is a difficult match up for the Orange with his size (6'9", 220) and other-worldly athleticism. 


The Orange got a bit of a preview of what it'd be like to face off against Gay when they took on Cincinnati and high-riser James "Flight" White, but Gay is a different kind of athlete.  His ability to rise up over anyone, contort his body, and make spectacular plays around the hoop make him college basketball's version of Reggie Bush—or in other words, the nation's most exciting player.  Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts will have their hands full with Gay, and will have to keep their heads on a swivel and always know where Gay is.  They cannot allow him to slip behind them on the baseline, and when a shot goes up they must put a body on him, particularly on the weakside, or else he could do a load of damage on Monday night.


During the past several games, while Gay has struggled a bit (just over 10 ppg in Big East play on 11-of-31 shooting), Armstrong has suddenly emerged as a dominant post presence.  The 6'11" native of Peekskill is a big, long athlete who can intimidate defensively (6 blocks in each of the last two games) and can get it done on the offensive end.  This season Armstrong is averaging 10.5ppg and hitting 66.7% of his attempts from the field while pulling in a team-leading 6.6 rebounds-per-game.  In the win over Georgetown, Armstrong went 8-of-10 from the floor and finished with 19 points, six blocks, and five rebounds, just days after scoring 14 points, pulling down 10 boards, and swatting six shots against Cincinnati. 


Armstrong has really picked up the slack this season for Josh Boone, who has seen his numbers drop across the board, averaging 9.4 points and 6.3 rebounds through 15 games.  Last season, Boone boasted averages of 12.4ppg and 8.4rpg.  Still, he is making 55% of his attempts from the field, and he makes a formidable partner for Armstrong up front at 6'10", 237.  Boone, like Armstrong, has a tremendous wingspan and knows how to swat shots with the best of them.  This year the duo have combined for 77 blocked shots, and the Huskies as a team have blocked 135.  The front line of Gay, Armstrong, and Boone is what makes UConn one of the most difficult match ups in the nation.  Few teams have the size and athleticism up front to combat the trio, but Syracuse, at least on paper, appears to be one of those teams.


The key to Monday's game will be how well Demetris Nichols, Terrence Roberts, and Mookie Watkins handle Gay, Boone, and Armstrong on the boards.  Against Georgetown, UConn's front line combined for only 13 rebounds, which no doubt helped the Hoyas keep the game close.  Meanwhile, the Orange were as dominant on the boards as they have been all year in their win over Cincinnati, and they will need to continue to be active on the glass if they want to have a chance to upset the Huskies. 


It is true of any game that limiting second chance points is a key to success, but this is especially true against the UConn front line.  Roberts was dominant on the boards on Saturday, and Nichols can be counted on to collect six or seven boards per game.  That leaves Mookie Watkins as the player that the Orange most need to step up his game.  Mookie has shown flashes lately of what he can do, pulling down 14 boards against Notre Dame and playing well against the Bearcats before getting into foul trouble.  Another player who will be key to the Orange, if given the playing time, is Arinze Onuaku.  Onuaku has shown that he can hit the boards with reckless abandon and be a great windex man for the Orange, and Jim Boeheim will most likely need to call on his freshman center against the big, athletic Huskies team.


Jim Calhoun has a freshman of his own that he can throw into the rebounding mix in 6'6" Jeff Adrien.  Adrien is a bit undersized, but is a bull underneath, pulling down 10 boards against Georgetown on Saturday and averaging 7.3 points and 4.7 boards in 16.1 minutes per game.  Calhoun can also look to Ed Nelson to help out on the glass, with the 11th year senior entering the game with averages of 4.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.  Nelson can also do some damage against a foul prone Orange front line from the free throw line, as he is a 73.7% free throw shooter this season. 


The key perimeter threat for UConn is actually their sixth man Rashad Anderson.  Anderson can be a prolific scorer and is an outstanding shooter, hitting on 45.9% from deep this season, with 39 made triples on the year.  Anderson is the team's second leading scorer at 14.5ppg, despite not starting a game all year.  Anderson is always a threat anytime he is on the floor, but struggles from the foul line, making just 65.4% of his charity attempts.  Denham Brown is another player that has the ability to get hot from the perimeter for the Huskies, though his shooting woes this season have landed him on the bench after starting 10 games this season, with Marcus Williams landing back in the starting lineup in his place.  Brown has been a disappointment this season, averaging 9.4 points but hitting a dismal 33.3% of his shots from the field and 28% from beyond the arc.


Running the show will be Williams and Austrie, who started side by side for the first time against Georgetown.  Williams has quickly gotten back to his 2004-05 form, and is averaging 10.5 points and 7 assists per game in his four games back, and his addition has given Calhoun another deep threat.  Williams has knocked down 5-of-8 (62.5%) of his three point attempts since returning to the lineup.  Williams is also one of the top free throw shooters on the team, hitting 83.3% of his attempts.  Surprisingly, Williams has only come up with five steals in four games, a sign that perhaps the talented junior is reformed.  Austrie has been a pleasant surprise for the Huskies this year, hitting 38.1% of his attempts from deep while dishing out 4.2apg and knocking down 77.4% of his free throws. 


The Huskies are a deep and talented team that has all the parts in place for a championship run this season.  They have a big, athletic front line, a terrific floor general that can knock down clutch shots, an explosive senior wingman, and several role players who know exactly what their jobs are when they hit the floor.  For the year, the Huskies are outscoring their opponents by an average of 21.2 points per game, and have dominated on the glass, outrebounding opponents 44.5 to 33.9.  The Huskies are shooting 47.4% from the field as a team and 38% from beyond the arc while making 68.4% of their free throw attempts.  UConn has seen 11 different players hit for double-figures this season.


After struggling a bit early in the season, the Orange have turned things around and in their last two games have looked downright impressive.  With 12 straight wins, including two tough road victories, Syracuse is 3-0 in Big East play as it enters its toughest three game stretch of the season, with road trips to Villanova and Pittsburgh looming after the UConn game.  If the Orange could come out of that stretch at 4-2 in Big East play, it will be a solid accomplishment.  If they can manage wins in two of the next three games, SU fans will know this team has the makings of something special.


One thing SU has got going right now is the way the team has started to gel offensively.  This is due largely to the improving play of Gerry McNamara, who struggled a bit from the field this season, but whose terrific point play has been a constant all year.  He has been helped tremendously by the recent emergence of Eric Devendorf, who struggled with foul trouble against Cincinnati but had his best all-around game as an Orangeman in the win over Notre Dame, hitting for 22 points and making big plays down the stretch. 


Of course the biggest and most pleasant surprise this season has been Nichols as a primary scoring option.  Nichols is scoring 15.5ppg this season and is hitting on 40.2% of his three point attempts, best on the team.  McNamara has improved his percentage to 34.5%, and Devendorf is hitting on 40% of his triples to make this the best perimeter shooting Orange team since the National Championship squad.  This year's team is different than most Orange teams, who have seemingly always had a dominant inside/outside presence like John Wallace, Damone Brown, Preston Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony, or Hakim Warrick to come up with a big bucket when the team needs it most.  This season, however, when the team needs a big hoop it will look to its perimeter players in McNamara, Devo, and Nichols—with the bulk of the pressure falling to McNamara. 


UConn has always given the Orange, and specifically McNamara problems.  In three games last season, McNamara shot an abysmal 12-of-49 from the field, including 5-of-26 from beyond the arc.  For the Orange to win, this trend needs to change.  McNamara is the main scoring option, and a shooting performance like any of those from last season would be unacceptable from the senior leader of this team.  Devendorf and Nichols also need to come up big offensively, because the Huskies are a very potent offensive team and the Orange, despite having one of the stingiest defenses in the Big East, will need all of the points they can get to keep have a shot. 


The real key to this game is rebounding, as mentioned earlier.  Whoever controls the glass will control this game, which makes the frontline of Nichols, Roberts, and Watkins crucial.  It absolutely cannot be emphasized enough, the biggest threat posed by this UConn team is its ability to get second chance points and dominate on offensive boards.  If the Huskies are able to get multiple attempts at the bucket throughout the night, it could be a tough one for Orange fans to watch.  Due to the need for rebounding, don't be surprised to see Louie McCroskey log quite a few minutes at the shooting guard position to give the Orange another strong body to get in there and limit the Huskies chances after the shot goes up.  Of the bench players for the Orange, Sweet Lou and Arinze should be the two that Boeheim goes to in an effort to combat this UConn squad.


It's a simple statement and an obvious one, but against the UConn Huskies, rebounding wins the game and smart decision making will win the game. 

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