UConn Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Pitt in Big East Matchup
Off to a better-than-expected start, with a depleted roster and new coach, the UConn Huskies (12-4, 2-2 Big East) began a stretch on Saturday that many felt would define their season.
Led by Shabazz Napier's 19 points, the Huskies were able to upset then-No. 17 Notre Dame in South Bend before moving on to a home matchup with No. 1 Louisville.
A 10-point first-half lead quickly evaporated as the Cardinals dominated the second frame to pull away for a 73-58 win.
The final game of this brutal stretch will come this Saturday at longtime rival Pittsburgh. The Panthers will hit the road to face Villanova before returning home for the game.
A win would cap a very successful three-game stretch for Kevin Ollie's club and would give the fans reason to be optimistic.
But it will be no easy task, and these are the five keys to the game for UConn vs. Pitt.
Bounce-Back Games for Napier and Boatright
Early in the first half it was buzzing inside the XL Center in Hartford as the UConn Huskies seemed on their way to an upset of the No. 1 team in the nation.
The first-half run was fueled by junior guard Shabazz Napier, who had 10 points at the half.
But he disappeared in the second half and became increasingly frustrated by both his and the team's inability to stem the Cardinals' run.
He finished with just 12 points, and most telling just two in the second-half collapse, as he was thoroughly outplayed by Cardinals guard Russ Smith.
Sophomore Ryan Boatright, on the other hand, wasn't much better, netting just 11 points and five turnovers. It was his worst game, scoring-wise, since a November win over Stony Brook.
Combined the two finished with 23 points on 8-of-23 shooting and with six turnovers.
For the Huskies to right their ship and beat Pitt on Saturday they will need more solid contributions from both players.
Move on from the Loss to Louisville
You can't dwell on a bad loss. And the Louisville game was certainly that for UConn.
An early 10-point lead, up by six at the half and then outscored 45-24 in the final 20 minutes. That's the sort of thing that makes or breaks a young team.
But there's a reason the Cardinals are the No. 1 team in America, and they proved it.
At this stage, that's not a game the Huskies are built to win. They don't possess the skill or experience yet and must grow and learn from adversity.
Their coach Kevin Ollie is a fiery competitor and will need to ensure his squad plays the game on the court and not the one already in the books if they want to win.
Compete on the Boards
Neither UConn or Pitt are particularly good on the boards. The Huskies rank a dismal 283rd in the nation in rebounding, yikes, but the Panthers at 207th aren't much better.
Rebounding was a little better for UConn against Louisville, with the exception of Gorgui Dieng's 16 boards, as they only trailed by a 33-25 margin.
Pitt has some pretty sizable players that will create matchup difficulties, but the Huskies will need to find a way to grab some boards and limit their second-chance opportunities.
Stop Tray Woodall
The Pitt Panthers offense runs through senior guard Tray Woodall. He is a tremendous ball distributor, averaging nearly six assist a game, and can shoot from the outside.
It'll be important for the Huskies to pressure the ball when it's in his hands and prevent him from finding open looks from behind the arc.
In two of three games Pitt has lost this season, to Michigan and Cincinnati, Woodall has struggled and was held under 10 points and five assists.
The Huskies will do well to replicate those numbers if they want to slow down the Pitt offense.
Ride the Hot Hand
Omar Calhoun had his best game of this season this past Monday night in a losing effort against Louisville.
The freshman guard contributed 20 points, on 6-of-9 shooting including 3-of-4 from behind the arc. All of his threes were clutch and helped UConn build a big lead before wilting in the second half.
It was Calhoun's second-highest score total of the season, albeit against substantially better competition, and he will be crucial to the success of the Huskies going forward beyond this season.
Kevin Ollie is smart enough to know this, and with his star freshman coming off such an impressive performance, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get more touches against the Panthers.