Syracuse - UConn Preview

As a "reward" for advancing against Cincinnati, the Orange have earned the right to play the Uconn Huskies—the Big East Tournament's #1 seed. UConn dominated the regular season series against the Orange, winning in the Carrier Dome 88-80 on January 16th, and obliterating Syracuse in Storrs by a score of 73-50.

UConn boasts perhaps the finest collection of depth, athleticism, and shooting in all of collegiate basketball.  Not surprisingly, the #1 ranked Huskies are the prohibitive favorites to win the Big East Tournament.


Syracuse needed a miracle to overcome Cincinnati…and it might take a minor miracle for the Orange to upset UConn in Thursday's quarterfinal game.  Can the Orange conjure some magic two days in a row?




UConn Player Assessment


The Huskies boast a lineup that has it all—height, athleticism, shooting, and depth.  Despotic coach Jim Calhoun can, and routinely does, go legitimately ten-players deep in a rotation that rarely loses any on-court potency regardless of which combination of players are in the lineup at any given time.


At the center position, the Huskies start Hilton Armstrong, easily one of the Big East conference's most improved players.  Armstrong averages 9.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but he also averages an eye-popping 3.4 blocks per game.  In the January 8th matchup in the Carrier Dome alone, he rejected eight Syracuse shots! 


Joining Armstrong up front is Josh Boone, an underachieving but very athletic 6-11 power forward.  Although Boone's production did not meet Calhoun's expectations, he has repeatedly torched Syracuse in the past, as evidenced by his pair of double-doubles against the ‘Cuse this year.  Both Boone and Armstrong run the floor swiftly, and put pressure on opposing defenses with the ability to get out and finish on the break, or provide offensive rebounding support on the "secondary" break.  Boone and Armstrong have also carved apart the interior of the Syracuse zone with slick inside passing.


Rounding out the frontcourt rotation is Rudy Gay, the preseason Big East player of the year.  While Gay has probably not lived up to the accolades [he is touted by many as the potential #1 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft], there is no denying his versatility and jaw-dropping athleticism. 


Although he hasn't shot the ball consistently well from outside, Gay is a rare inside-outside talent, with the ability to post up, step outside and shoot the three point shot, create his own shot off of the dribble, or post up inside.  He is deadly in transition, and has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best dunkers in all of college basketball.


Although Craig Austrie nominally has started at point guard for much of the season for UConn, the real engine driving the machine is point guard Marcus Williams.  Williams has averaged 10.4 points and 8.4 assists for the season, and is one of the top lead guards in the country.  He is money from the free throw line [83.8%]—especially in late-game situations.  Williams can be turnover prone, but when he's sharp, there is nobody better at orchestrating team offense at the collegiate level.


Joining Williams in the backcourt is senior Rashad Anderson—a three point bombardier [42.6% from three] who is second on the team in scoring [13.3] for the Huskies.  Like Boone, Anderson has torn apart the Syracuse zone in the past.  Orange defenders will have to locate him early and often in order to limit his open looks.


The second unit at Coach Calhoun's disposal is comprised of an impressive collection of talent.  Many of these players would be starting at other Big East schools.  The top scoring weapon off of the bench is senior swingman Denham Brown.  Despite playing a mere 23 minutes per contest, Brown puts up 10 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.  Brown is primarily a slasher, but he can step out and hit perimeter shots, where he is capable of being streaky-hot.  The last thing that the opposition wants to see after attempting to guard Gay and Anderson on the wing is a consistent scoring threat like Brown coming into the game.


The top frontcourt reserve has emerged as freshman Jeff Adrien, a 6-6 230 pound bruiser who posts 6.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in scarcely more than 10 minutes per game.  Adrien is a classic Calhoun power forward—slightly undersized but mobile, relentless on the glass, and strong on the offensive boards.  He gets the job done in much the same manner as Eric Hicks from Cincinnati—utilizing brute force, effort, and intensity in order to get the job done.


When either Boone or Armstrong head to the bench, Calhoun can also call upon banger Ed Nelson to spell his starters.  Nelson's playing time has dropped off this year—primarily due to the emergence of Adrien.  Nelson puts up 3.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game—quality numbers in just over 9 minutes of playing time.  Nelson's role is to play physical, to use his allotment of fouls to the detriment of the opposition, and to clean up inside when the opportunity presents itself.  Nelson understands his role and plays within his limitations.



Austrie provides Calhoun with the luxury of having an "experienced" point guard on the bench.  Although only a freshman, being force-fed into the starting lineup earlier this season accelerated Austrie's developmental curve.  Although he doesn't look to score much, Austrie is capable of knocking down outside shots.  He is fairly conservative off of the dribble, doesn't turn the ball over much, and is a solid defender.




Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Orange have little chance to defeat the UConn Huskies in Thursday's semi-final contest.  The prognosticators will suggest that the Huskies are too talented, too athletic, too deep, too strong from the perimeter, etc.  On paper, that is certainly true.  Conventional wisdom would also suggest that the only way that Syracuse should be able to defeat UConn would be if the Orange caught the Huskies looking ahead—an unlikely scenario, given that the Huskies are playing for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.


But games are played for a reason.  In order for Syracuse to defeat their rivals on Thursday, here's what will have to happen:


  • Watkins and Roberts will have to "man up"  --  The Syracuse interior duo has twice been outplayed by their Husky counterparts.  The same was true of the Cincinnati frontcourt, who dominated Watkins and Roberts in a humiliating February 15th blowout win against the ‘Cuse.  In the Big East tournament rematch, however, Watkins and Roberts outplayed Hicks and McGowan.  Syracuse will need a similar effort from its inconsistent big men on Thursday in order to have a chance.  Can Roberts and Watkins play the UConn frontcourt to a stalemate?


  • G-Money – No team has played better defense against Gerry McNamara than the Connecticut Huskies.  In past games, Calhoun has unleashed wave after wave of defender against McNamara, intending to wear him down with full court pressure, take away his open looks, and force him into bad shots.  McNamara will need to buck his trend of poor play against the Huskies in order for Syracuse to have a chance.


  • The bench – Coach Jim Boeheim played nine players in the first half against Cincinnati, but as the game got tighter in the second half, so did Boeheim's rotation.  Fatigue could be a factor in Thursday's game, given the energy that SU was forced to expend getting past Cincinnati.  Boeheim will have to use his bench wisely and get solid minutes from his reserves in order to combat the UConn depth.


  • Avoid offensive lapses – The Syracuse offense alternates between looking dynamic at times, and struggling to convert shots at others.  During the team's late season swoon, the Orange have shown the latter more often than the former. SU can't afford to have extended periods of time where the team struggles to score—especially against a team like UConn, which thrives in transition and uses defense to create easy scoring opportunities.  If SU labors to even get looks while the Huskies score with ease, the Orange could be in for a long night.


  • Minimize turnovers – Along the same lines, Syracuse needs to do a much better job of taking care of the ball than it has in recent games.  Against Villanova and Cincinnati, the Syracuse players squandered countless opportunities to capitalize on the opposition's mistakes by giving the ball right back to defenders.  The Syracuse offense needs to be EFFICIENT — maximizing scoring opportunities while minimizing turnovers— in order to go toe-to-toe with UConn..


  • Play loose, have fun – At this point, the Syracuse players don't have anything to lose…while their UConn counterparts have the burden of expectations upon them.  The Orange need to find a way to sustain the momentum from the Cincinnati victory and take the fight to the Huskies.


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