5 Keys for UConn to Upset Syracuse
With any postseason play off the table thanks to poor APR scores from several years ago, Wednesday's matchup with the Big East leader Syracuse Orange may very well be the biggest game of the Huskies' season.
At first glace, this game seems like a mismatch. UConn lost much of its talent from last season to the NBA draft and transfers, and Syracuse looks to be in the thick of the hunt for a national title.
This has, however, consistently been the marquee rivalry in the Big East for years and with Syracuse bolting to the ACC next season, it will be the last time these powerhouses matchup as Big East foes.
With the number of historic battles these teams have had in the past and the amount of pride on the line in this final showdown, it's hard to see this game not being a dogfight.
It may not go six overtimes, but count on Kevin Ollie to get his guys pumped up and to make this game competitive. Here are five keys for the Huskies to take down the Orange in Hartford on Wednesday.
Winning the Backcourt Battle
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This contest pits two of the best backcourts in the nation against each other, with the Husky trifecta of Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun going up against Syracuse stars Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams.
The combination of Triche, who leads the team in scoring, and Carter-Williams, who averages 8.5 dimes a game, is a major reason why Syracuse averages the most points per game in the Big East.
Syracuse also leads the Big East in field-goal percentage defense this season, so it will be a tough task for the Huskies to match those guards' offensive numbers against the staunch Orange defense.
Shabazz Napier is the Huskies' floor general and with his pedigree in big games we can expect him to play his best, but the key will be how Boatright and the freshman Calhoun can match up with the quick 'Cuse guards.
The three guards that Kevin Ollie starts in the backcourt are the core of this team, and they will need to come up big for this game to be close.
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Connecticut native Tyler Olander's production this season has not been what Kevin Ollie would have liked as a starter, especially with the lack of depth in the UConn frontcourt.
When he plays well though, UConn can compete with anyone in the country. Connecticut's two wins this season against ranked teams, Michigan State and Notre Dame, have come in Olander's best two outputs of the season.
On the other hand, Olander has struggled in the team's losses.Kevin Ollie said as much in an interview with David Borges of the New Haven Register. "“[Olander's] got to get himself involved – get rebounds, play harder, play with more energy and effort," Ollie said.
In UConn's four-point loss to N.C. State, Olander had just three rebounds and no points in 19 minutes of action. He posted two points on one-of-three shooting with just one rebound against then first-ranked Louisville.
The strength of this team is undoubtedly its backcourt, but the team truly thrives when it has a strong frontcourt presence, and that starts with Olander.
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A major key for the Huskies to compete with Syracuse will be getting valuable minutes from a bench that has struggled with production this season.
The Huskies took an expected hit this offseason from the NBA draft, losing stars Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond, but the transfers of former starters Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith after the postseason ban has really impacted UConn's depth.
The Huskies have only really rotated eight guys for most of Big East play, and their bench took another hit this past week with the suspension of big man Enosch Wolf.
This puts the weight largely on Neils Giffey and R.J. Evans to provide a much needed rest for the three starting guards who all average over 30 minutes a game. Look for freshmen Phillip Nolan and Leon Tolksdorf to get increased minutes as Ollie tries to alleviate some of the load down low thanks to the loss of Wolf.
The Huskies will need to expend a lot of energy to guard Syracuse's speedy backcourt, and strong energy off the bench will be important for UConn to make a run.
Controlling C.J. Fair
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Connecticut has the quickness to match up well with the Syracuse guards, so C.J. Fair poses the biggest problems for the Husky defense.
Fair, who is second on Syracuse in scoring and leads the team on the boards, and with his play this season it's not hard to see why people believe he is the key cog for the Orange. He also proved himself a key leader on the team with his strong play in James Sutherland's absence.
On the other side, Connecticut has struggled protecting the paint against strong big men this season. They got outmuscled by N.C. State's C.J. Leslie, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng and most recently, forward Jakarr Sampson, who lit them up for 18 points in their loss to St. John's.
The Huskies have no true centers in play on Wednesday with Wolf out, so forwards DeAndre Daniels and Olander will bear the brunt of the load against Fair.
With Fair's talent, it's hard to see the Huskies winning this battle, but all the Husky forwards need to do is mitigate Fair's impact enough to let the team stay in the game.
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Making shots seems like an obvious key to any basketball game, but with their disadvantage on the glass it will be especially important for the Huskies to have a good shooting night.
UConn shot only 30 percent from the field in their loss to St. John's, and that was the key in the six-point loss.
Coach Ollie was happy with the heart in an effort where the Huskies went on a 15-to-1 run to get back into it, but noted how important shooting is in a report with the Associated Press.
"We have to play with heart and energy," he said. "Play like you love the game. We weren't shooting but still stayed in the game. We are holding teams under 40 percent from the field but we can't expect to win shooting what we have the last two games."
The Huskies rebounded in their next game against Seton Hall, where they shot 54 percent in a 78-67 win. They'll need to continue this shooting trend if they are going to take down the Orange.