Connecticut Easy To Critique, Hard To Beat

The Connecticut Huskies haven't always overwhelmed opponents this season and have stumbled twice on the road in the Big East Conference. But, make no mistake about it, Coach Jim Calhoun's team will be on a short list of legitimate natonal championship contenders when the NCAA Tournament pairings are revealed on March 12.

The Connecticut Huskies have been an easy team to nit-pick, even as Jim Calhoun's squad accumulated 25 victories and lost just twice in the first four months of the season.

Watch them with a critical eye and, often, fault (in no particular order) can be found with their focus, shot selection, execution and half-court and transition defense.

So why do I consider the Huskies the clear-cut favorites to come away with the program's third national championship in Indianapolis on April 3?

It's explained in three words: Margin of error.

They've got gobs of it . . . much more than any other team that will be anointed a threat to knock off the Huskies at any point in the tournament's three weeks.

Calhoun has, a) The most dominant frontcourt in the country; 2) one of the three or four most dangerous jump shooters (Rashad Anderson) anywhere; 3) the most efficient "pure" point guard (Marcus Williams) operating these days; and, 4) more than enough depth to secure the team against any short-term foul or injury situations.

And, of course, they have one of the three or four most innately gifted players on the college level in sophomore Rudy Gay.

The Huskies are far from unbeatable and any combination of those nit-picked issues could make things a lot more precarious for them than they should be in the first couple of rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

But if Calhoun is able to keep his thumb down on those issues – and, with his depth, he can wield that big hammer called "the bench" and whack any offenders with it – someone, even if that someone goes by the name of Duke, Texas, Memphis or Villanova, will have to play very, very well to knock them off.

BOUNCING AROUND THE COUNTRY

  • Ohio State will have to stumble to either Northwestern (on the road Wednesday night) or Purdue (at home Sunday) to fumble away at least a share of the Big Ten Conference's regular-season championship.

    If the Buckeyes win out, senior post Terence Dials should be the conference's Player of the Year and, even if they don't, Thad Matta will be the runaway choice for the Big Ten's Coach of the Year honor.

    That being said, a half-dozen teams – the Buckeyes, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin – appear fully capable of winning the conference tournament next week in Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

    The feeling here is that the relative balance throughout the conference is more a sign of strength (from a national perspective) rather than mediocrity.

    Those same six clubs, with favorable matchups (as much as that can be the case in the NCAA Tournament) could win a couple of games apiece.

  • On the subject of the Big Ten, I'm not sure there is a more perplexing team, nationally, this season than the Michigan State Spartans.

    I don't care how good the Big Ten is (and it's the second strongest conference, after the Big East) this season.

    There's no way that a Tom Izzo-coached team with Paul Davis, Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown in the lineup should be .500 in conference.

  • Gonzaga is going to have to step up its half-court defense and, in some instances, its shot selection (other than that of Adam Morrison, who is fully welcomed to shoot anytime he darn well pleases), if it's going to venture beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.

    I'm fully on board with the concept that playing conference opponents is almost always more difficult than playing non-conference foes because of the familiarity edge with personnel and coaching philosophies in-conference opponents have.

    But there is no way that a Top Five-ranked team in the country should be needing 37 second-half points by Morrison to beat Loyola Marymount, and 34 points by Morrison and a last-second shot by Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes to beat the University of San Francisco in Spokane.

  • It's too bad that Dick Bennett is stepping down (apparently, for the last time following his "retirement" several seasons ago at Wisconsin) from coaching duties without the general basketball-watching population ever realizing he is truly among the very elite in his profession.

    His peers in the Big Ten and, during the past three seasons at Washington State, in the Pacific 10 Conference sure know it, though. No one – and I emphasize, no one – is more respected by those on all levels of coaching.

  • A source very close to Golden State Warriors' coach Mike Montgomery – I repeat, very close – promises that, contrary to how often his name is mentioned with any current or future openings, the former Montana and Stanford coach has no intention of returning to the college level whenever his stint in the NBA ends.

    Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com.


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