Connecticut has dispatched foes by an average of almost 30 points this season and outscored all 11 by a combined 313 points. Part of that is the weak slate, as the Huskies, undefeated and ranked ninth, have yet to play any major conference team outside of Mississippi. It has been a simple formula. Use better skill and a powerful – and intimidating – inside game to demolish and demoralize undersized foes.
That will likely be the same plan of attack against West Virginia. UConn, which leads the nation in blocks with 119 blocks, will poke and prod the inside early, looking to spot weaknesses and exploit WVU's lack of defense on the interior. Center Haseem Thabeet (Fr., 7-3, 255 lbs.) has major size and has averaged 7.4 boards per game to go with a national-best 48 blocked shots. But his 7.9 points per game average ranks fifth-best on the team and suggests the Tanzania native is used more as a defensive clog. He has the length and athleticism (Thabeet is surprisingly well proportioned and built for a player of his height) to totally shut down the inside. He won't be nearly as effective against West Virginia, however, because of the Mountaineers' perimeter-based offense and tendency toward longer rebounds.
The major problem, besides scoring on the inside against a dominant defender, will be matching the Huskies at both guard spots and at power forward. Point guard A.J. Price (Soph., 6-2, 187 lbs.) and two-man Jerome Dyson (Fr., 6-3, 190 lbs.) both average more than 13 points and can hit from anywhere on the floor. The duo are not nearly as prolific from three-point range as are the Mountaineers (both have made 12 threes on 34 and 38 shots, respectively, to lead UConn), but have distributed the ball well within the balanced offense, which has three players in double figures. There are three more that average at least 7.8 points, but with UConn scoring consistently in the 80s, that figure is a bit misleading.
The main test for Dyson and Price, which will get their shots within UConn's inside-out offense, will be to see if they can work the ball through West Virginia's 1-3-1 zone and into the inside to Thabeet and power forward Jeff Adrian (Soph., 6-7, 238 lbs.). Adrian scores at a team-best 13.7 points per game clip and, in his second season, has already appeared in 44 games. An All-Big East rookie selection last season, Adrian was among the best players in the country when he signed, and shows the ability to slash to the basket. He has yet to take a three-pointer this season, but does average 10.1 rebounds, making him among the handful of players to average a double-double through 10 games. This will be the most difficult match for West Virginia, and making shots to get into the 1-3-1 will be key in defending Adrain, who is as tough a man-to-man match as any player West Virginia faces this year.
Swingman Marcus Johnson (Soph., 6-6, 195 lbs.) does a bit of everything in his supporting role for UConn. He averages 8.2 points and 4.3 boards, but like the majority of Huskies' players, has a nearly one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio. That's an overall team weakness (UConn has 177 assists to 166 turnovers, numbers usually befitting a lesser team) that WVU can exploit, and that facet could loom large if the Mountaineers can keep the game low scoring and make each possession uber-meaningful.
Head coach Jim Calhoun, in his 21st year, uses an eight-man rotation. The three subs – guard Craig Austrie (Soph., 6-3, 185 lbs.) and forwards Stanley Robinson (Fr., 6-9, 210 lbs.) and Curtis Kelly (Fr., 6-9, 217 lbs.) – combine for 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Austrie is an ideal size for a combo guard and provides steady relief with a dash of experience with him having played in more than 40 career games. The former Connecticut state player of the year has lost just 10 games in his college and high school careers combined. Robinson and Kelly have near identical bodies, though the former is better on the boards and sees much more time.
Can West Virginia handle the increased athleticism and a major scoring threat inside? How will the younger players like Da'Sean Butler and Joe Mazzulla react when initially inserted against a top 10 foe? How will UConn's youth – it starts three sophomores and two freshmen – react in the first solid road test of the season? And can the Mountaineers come anywhere close to being as effective as they have in their first 11 games with the trademark 1-3-1 zone, or will it be exposed with penetrating dribble drives and kicks to the corner, then inside, or major lobs over the top that are jammed home for easy scores?
|Sat Dec 30|
WVU 10-1, 0-0
UConn 11-0, 0-0
|Sirius Channel: 158|
WVU - 114
UConn - 81
WVU does have several plusses in the match-ups, and should pull any team out to the perimeter. If UConn stays in a man defense, it could have difficulty covering the cutting Mountaineers for the full 35 seconds. Also, Rob Summers has increasingly shown better play – though Jamie Smalligan has lagged at times, and not finished offensively – and Alex Ruoff and Frank Young continue to shoot well. If that trend holds and WVU can increasingly utilize its new athleticism while mixing in more transition points and a dose of the physicality Beilein was trying to create in practice over the break, it has a chance. That reads like a tall order, however: Do everything well, and a win might be in the making. That's the situation when one faces a legit top 15 squad.
Also on the plus side, this is the first time UConn has even left its home state this season. The minuses? No student crowd and a fan base separated because of the Gator Bowl. Still, the Coliseum should be rocking, and that has carried far lesser teams than this to bigger upsets. Look for an inside vs. outside match-up and a game built around Connecticut's pups offering a bit of the northeast's playground style versus West Virginia's Princeton-like look. UConn's second chance points and points in the paint versus WVU's productivity from behind the arc should tell the tale. A score in the 50s and 60s leans toward the Mountaineers; if any team gets into the 80s, it'll be Connecticut in a blowout.
The Huskies have been blessed with some extremely talented shot blockers over the years, and with Thabeet in the middle, haven't missed a beat this season. For an unbelievable sixth consecutive year, UConn is leading the nation in blocked shots. Thabeet has 48 of the Huskies' 119 blocks this year. To save you doing the math, UConn is rejecting 10.8 shots per game.
Of course, part of the reason for the high total is due to UConn's soft early schedule (Mountaineer fans should note that WVU's scoring defense also falls into this category). It's not likely that the Huskies will maintain this pace. However, just the threat of those rejectors on the back line is enough to alter some shots, which is almost as good as a block.
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One of the more remarkable stats of the John Beilein era will be under serious pressure on Saturday. Under Beilein, WVU is a perfect 19-0 in December home games. That's not to say that this game is a foregone conclusion as a loss. UConn is obviously very talented, but has not been seriously tested this year, so this game should be a very telling marker as to each team's relative strength.
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Incredibly, the WVU contest is UConn's first road game of the season. The Huskies began the 2006-07 season with 11 straight home games, nearly tripling the longest previous stretch of home contests to start a season. In the Jim Calhoun era, the most consecutive home games Connecticut has started the season with is four. The most consecutive home games to start a season prior to this season was six in 1951-52.
Like West Virginia, UConn chose to ease up on its early season slate to help indoctrinate a large number of newcomers into collegiate basketball. However, the Huskies may have overdone it a bit – one or two road games, or a holiday tournament might not have been a bad thing. It's too bad that the bulk of West Virginia's students will still be out on break – that might have been a rude awakening for some of UConn's youngsters.
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WVU has been almost perfectly balanced in its first and second half scoring to date. The Mountaineers have scored 405 points in the first half and 404 points in the second half through 11 games.