Vanderbilt's prize for this victory is a place in the Sweet 16 and a game with powerful Connecticut. UConn is no stranger to the Commodore players, all of whom except the freshmen were on the teams that lost 86-71 to the Huskies in Hartford, Conn. on Nov. 19, 2001, and 76-70 to them in Nashville a year later.
Connecticut comes into this game with a 29-6 record, having finished second in Big East Conference regular season play, and later winning the conference tournament (right). The Huskies have gained victories over several NCAA tournaments teams including this year's "Cinderella," Nevada (93-79), Utah (76-44), Pittsburgh 68-65 and 61-58, Seton Hall (89-67), Boston College (68-65), and Syracuse (84-56). In the NCAA opening rounds, they defeated Vermont (70-53) and DePaul (72-55).
UConn dominated the statistical categories of Big East basketball this season. The Huskies were first in points scored per game, scoring margin, field goal defense, three point shots made per game, rebounding margin, blocked shots, and assists. They were second in field goal shooting percentage and assist/turnover ratio, and third in scoring defense. There were only two categories in which their performance was not up to standard; they were dead last in free throw percentage (hitting only about 61% of their tosses), and eleventh in steals.
Connecticut is led by 6-10 junior Emeka Okafor, the Big East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, and a virtual certainty for first team All-America honors. He is averaging 18.1 ppg, hitting 60% of shots from the field, and grabbing 11.7 rebounds per game. He is the premier shot blocker in the country (4.3 per game). What makes his performance even more amazing is that he has been troubled with a stress-fractured vertebra all season, causing him to miss three games, and limiting his performance in others. He is an outstanding student who will graduate in June, and he has made it clear that this will be his last year at Connecticut.
6-3 junior Ben Gordon (left) was also named to the All-Conference first team in the Big East. He scored 17.9 ppg, hit 43.7% of his threes, handed out 4.7 assists per game, and even found time to snare 4.8 rebounds. When he goes off on a rampage, Gordon can put up big numbers, for instance 37 against Nevada, 29 against Villanova and Notre Dame, and 23 against Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament championship game. On the other hand, there were several games in which he was unable to find the target and scored less than ten points.
The point guard is 6-1 senior Taliek Brown, who led the Big East in assists (6.6 per game). He has an extremely good assist/turnover ratio and, although scoring only 6.2 ppg, made honorable mention for the all-conference team. Although he, like Okafor, is a weak free-throw shooter, and scarcely ever puts up a shot outside the three-point line, he has developed into the proverbial "steadying influence" and team leader.
6-10 freshman Josh Boone has started all but one game and put up some big numbers when Okafor was out of the lineup, for instance 16 rebounds against Notre Dame. He averaged 5.7 ppg and 5.6 rebounds, and doubtless will be the starting center next season.
Occupying the other starting spot is 6-5 sophomore Rashad Anderson, who scored 10.4 ppg, and made 40% of his threes. Anderson is a "gunner," who will fire at the basket given the least opportunity. Late in the season he replaced 6-5 sophomore Denham Brown, who started for most of the season, until falling into a shooting slump, but still averaged 9.6 ppg and hit 39% of his threes.
The sixth man, who became eligible after missing the first seven games of the season, is 6-10 freshman Charlie Villanueva. Playing mostly at the high post, Villanueva scored 9.5 ppg and went outside to make 37% of his threes. He also snared 5.4 rebounds per game, was one of the most heralded freshmen in the country and, along with Boone, was named to the Big East All-Rookie team.
Although the seven players mentioned above get most of the minutes, there are two others who get into most of the games. They are 6-11 sophomore Hilton Armstrong (2.5 ppg) and 6-5 senior Shamon Tooles (0.7 ppg), both defensive specialists. Armstrong actually started most of the games in his freshman year. All of the other players presently on the team are non-scholarship players.
Connecticut is one of the few teams in the country that has height equivalent to that of Vanderbilt (four players 6-10 or taller), and their big men are better rebounders and shot-blockers. There is a lot of firepower in Okafor, Gordon, Anderson, Denham Brown, and Villanueva, and all but Okafor are effective shooters from the outside. In view of all of their talent, it is surprising that the Huskies lost six games (to Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Providence, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse).
Connecticut is undoubtedly the favorite to win the Phoenix Regional. With several of the tournament favorites already eliminated, the Huskies probably stand as good a chance as any team to win the whole thing, provided that Okafor is able to play with full effectiveness. The expectation here is for them to defeat Vanderbilt by six to ten points-- but there have been many surprises already in the NCAA tournament. Who's to say that the Commodores are incapable of providing another?
Photos by Julie Jacobson, copyright 2004 Associated Press.