UConn Season Review: The Huskies enter the game with a 3-6 record in Big East play, good for a three way tie with South Florida and Seton Hall for the last Big East tournament slot. As such, tonight's game will be hugely important for UConn. Jim Calhoun's team has been plauged by freshman mistakes and inconsistent effort, but they have still managed a respectable 13-3 mark at home. They were able to pull out an overtime victory against Rutgers on Saturday at the Hartford Civic Center, and tonight's game is at Gampel Pavilion. The raucous home crowd should be worth 5 to 7 points alone.
Prior to the OT win over Rutgers, Connecticut had lost 5 consecutive games, 4 of them against Big East opponents. The Huskies have had major difficulties scoring this year, largely because of the youth and inexperience of the team. FR PG A.J. Price was a concensus top-10 player and McDonald's All-American as a high school senior, but two years away from the game has taken its toll on his productivity. He has put up respectable numbers (10 pts, 4 ast, 3.3 reb), but hasn't been the dynamic player-maker and scorer that many expected.
Price is joined by Jerome Dyson, Doug Wiggins, and Craig Austrie in the guard rotation. Each of these players have shown flashes of ability, but they have all been inconsistent as well. For Dyson, shot selection has been a huge issue - he is shooting only 37% from the field and 28% from three point range. He can get to the basket very well and has the strength to overpower defenders, but at this point he does not have the ability to discern when to attack on offense.
The Husky frontcourt has likewise had problems. Returning SO Jeff Adrien, a brusing 6-6 PF, has had a fine season, but the rest of the frontcourt is largely unsettled. Adrien is a tenacious rebounder who plays with great intensity all of the time, but he doesn't get a lot of frontline help from a scoring standpoint. 7-3 FR C Hasheem Thabeet might one day turn into an All-Big East center, but right now he is just a towering athlete. It is not hard to see that he doesn't have much game experience. He tends to bring the ball down every time he gets in the post and doesn't have much of an offensive arsenal outside of the dunk. Still, he's averaging about 6 points, 6 rebounds, and nearly 4 blocks and should only get better.
The frontcourt depth is provided by Stanley Robinson, Marcus Johnson, and Curtis Kelly. Robinson is a terrific athlete who has turned in some jaw-dropping plays this year. However, he lacks seasoning and also has poor shot selection. Johnson can be deadly in transition, but has struggled in halfcourt situations. Kelly is still a year or so away from really contributing, but he has quick feet and a wide body.
Match-Up: To highlight UConn's offensive woes this season, consider that they are scoring only 64 points per game in league play and shooting only 38.4% from the field. They turn the ball over almost as much as Syracuse, and they have only one player who averages over ten points per game in Big East play. They will be looking for points any way they can get them.
Consequently, the single most important thing for SU on Monday evening will be limiting UConn's transition opportunities. The Orange have been inconsistent when it comes to transition defense this year - they have had some games in which the opposition scores at will on fastbreaks, and other games where the players make a concerted effort to get back. Considering UConn's recent struggles scoring in a halfcourt setting, Calhoun will emphasize speeding up the tempo of the game to take advantage of their excellent team speed.
The Orange will also need to be prepared for the UConn press. Calhoun has had trouble getting his young team to really grasp the concepts of his pressure defense, but against a poor ballhandling team such as Syracuse, it won't take the equivalent of "40 Minutes of Hell" to wreck havoc. What Syracuse really lacks this year by way of ballhandling is a big forward who can dribble and pass, and more importantly see over a press. There is no John Wallace, Billy Owens, or Carmelo Anthony to help out the backcourt, so Josh Wright and Eric Devendorf will be left to their own devices. That is a scary thought.
If the Orange can limit UConn's transition opportunities and keep turnovers to a minimum, the next major factor becomes the halfcourt defense. Calhoun has been a master at ripping apart the SU zone, but this year might be a much different experience. UConn does not have the type of perimeter marksmen that they've had in the past, and all of their guards are young and excitable. There is a good chance that Price, Dyson, Wiggins, and Austrie will have serious trouble attacking the zone and recognizing a good shot from a bad one.
The one thing that SU will need to be wary of is allowing the Huskies second and thrid chance opportunities. UConn is good at attacking the offensive glass, and in particular the Orange frontcourt will need to identify and contain Jeff Adrien. Syracuse has had a history of difficulty against UConn's undersized forwards such as Kevin Freeman and Rashamel Jones.
Calhoun likes to post a big man in the center of the paint, draw out the SU center, then throw a bound pass in to a cutting forward for a dunk. No doubt we will see this play tonight with Adrien as the intended receiver. The question is: does Calhoun have a seasoned big man to make this pass, and will SU adjust to cut it out? Last year in the Big East tourney, Boeheim added a few wrinkles to the zone that limited this play as Demetris Nichols pinched in the weakside to deter the cutter or get into the passing lane. The Orange will have to keep that in mind tonight.
From the forward slot, the Huskies don't have a really good matchup against Demetris Nichols. Calhoun has employed a lot of 3 guard sets this year, so Nichols should be able to shoot over the defense. At times this year he has struggled with scoring against smaller, quicker defenders. SU's interior players have a huge edge in experience. Will that translate into an ability to score on offense and keep Adrien off the glass on defense? With this crew, one never knows.
On paper, Syracuse has the edge in just about every category in this game, but when SU and UConn meet, you can forget about the stats and records. Syracuse never seems to play well at Connecticut, and tonight's game will be at Gampel Pavilion, where it seems like SU hasn't won in forever. The last time the Orange were able to pick up a road win against the Huskies was in 1999, in a game that Richard Hamilton and Kevin Freeman both missed due to injury.
With a rowdy Gampel crowd behind them, expect the Huskies to keep this game close, especially if they can frustrate Wright and Devendorf. This is a game where SU's seniors really need to come to the forefront and provide leadership and production. Which SU frontline will show up? The one that got dominated last year in Connecticut, or the one that took out the Huskies blow-for-blow in the Big East tournament? Stay tuned for your answer tonight on Big Monday!