UConn's Blueprint to Making a Deep Run the 2014 NCAA Tournament
It's been over two years since Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, has played an NCAA tournament game. On Thursday the Huskies will face No. 10 St. Joseph's in the second round—and a lot has changed since their last Big Dance.
They were banned from last year’s NCAAs for academic reasons, legendary coach Jim Calhoun no longer patrols the sidelines—he retired and was replaced by his protege, Kevin Ollie—and the Huskies are younger, more raw and rely on guard play rather than frontcourt physicality in order to win games.
It's been said before and it'll surely be said again: The Huskies will only go as far as their guards can take them—and that's potentially very far.
When he's on his game, Shabazz Napier is one of the best players in the nation and, combined with Ryan Boatright, the Huskies have a backcourt that can cause tons of matchup problems.
Historically, UConn has been a team built not only to get into the tournament, but to cut down the nets. That may seem like a lofty expectation for this bunch—it's true they are very raw and particularly so up front—but if they get hot shooting at the right time, they're a tough out for anyone.
They don't have the best draw in the East Region, but March Madness if often a crapshoot, and you just don't know what could happen.
But for the Huskies to make a deep run, they'll need to follow this blueprint.
Solid, Consistent Guard Play from Napier and Boatright
Shabazz Napier is the reigning and inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. He snagged that piece of hardware by averaging over 17 points, six boards and five assists per game, and it's not an exaggeration to say that the UConn Huskies will only go as far as he takes them in this tournament.
Napier has the ability to carry this team across the finish line when he's hot, but he also has a tendency to be a very streaky shooter.
For some context, he shot just under 43 percent from the field for the season, but that number dropped to 35 percent in the Huskies' seven regular-season losses.
He needs to be consistent and shoot the ball well if UConn hopes to move deep into the tournament and make it out of the opening weekend to the Sweet 16.
Ditto for his backcourt mate Ryan Boatright.
After a very solid 2012-13 campaign, the 21-year-old junior saw his numbers take a bit of a dive this season.
Boatright's scoring was significantly down—from 15.4 points per game last season to 11.9 this year—and a lot of that has to do with a seemingly lost touch from the field. After connecting on just a shade under 43 percent of his shots last season, Boatright was only good for a 38 percent clip this year.
Making matters worse, he wasn't able to help pick up the slack in the games where Napier struggled, shooting just 34 percent from the field in the Huskies' losses.
Both Napier and Boatright need to be consistent, take good shots and avoid prolonged scoring droughts for this team to be a real factor and make a run. Unfortunately for the Huskies, it seems that either both are on or both are off.
They just have to hope for the former and avoid the latter.
Break the Zone and Make It Rain
Want to see how to neutralize the Huskies offense?
Check out their regular-season finale, an 81-48 disaster of a loss at Louisville. Or for more recent example, just look at what the Cardinals did to them in Saturday's American Athletic Conference tournament final.
In both games, virtually nothing went right for UConn, and it provided a blueprint for how best to shut down their offense and leave them pretty helpless.
The Huskies have struggled all season against teams that can play solid zone defense, and the Cardinals were certainly proficient at that, holding Napier and Boatright to a combined 7-of-22 from the field in the title game.
UConn's best weapon is the three ball—they shot just under 39 percent as a team from long range this season—and if they can't find open looks, they're in trouble. In three games against Louisville this season, they shot an atrocious 15-of-61 from behind the arc, good for under 25 percent.
Solid passing, interior drives and kick-outs are key, and UConn will really need to make sure that it gets better at attacking behind the zone.
Sending players down the lane, collapsing the interior and getting the ball back out for open looks is crucial. The Huskies have the players to do it and the shooters to make it work, but they've struggled.
The question—and it's a big one—is can they find a way to do it with consistency?
That's been a problem all season, and it's one they need to solve in a hurry.
Secondary Scorers Need to Step Up
When it comes to consistency, DeAndre Daniels is the type of player who can make you lose your mind. He's so talented and has so much potential that you just have to wonder how he's equally capable of dominating a game or completely disappearing.
He's a big X-factor for the Huskies entering tournament play, and a lot will be expected of him if Kevin Ollie's group hopes to play with the big boys on the biggest of national stages. Despite his struggles, he was UConn's second-leading scorer this season, averaging just over 12 points per game.
Daniels is a 6'9" forward who got off to a solid start this season, but he faded late, particularly after injuring his ankle in a road win over Rutgers on Jan. 25. He's clearly the Huskies' best frontcourt player though undersized, and they'll need to get consistent play out of him in the tournament.
Other secondary scoring options include Niels Giffey, who is lethal from three if he's left open—just ask Memphis. The 22-year-old senior from Berlin nailed triples at an over 50 percent clip this season, and he has a propensity for hitting big shots in big spots.
Off the bench, Lasan Kromah is capable of providing a little spark, but Omar Calhoun has had a disappointing sophomore season.
UConn needs to rely on its guards to play well and for its secondary scorers to pick up enough slack because it doesn't run an extremely deep bench.
Fight for Those Boards
One area where this season's version of the Huskies drastically improved over last year was on the boards. UConn was absolutely dreadful at cleaning up the mess in 2012-13, and while not one of its strongest points, this year's club was definitely improved.
Some of that had to do with the bigger bodies in the frontcourt—7'0" freshman Amida Brimah certainly helped—but Napier also deserves a great deal of credit. Despite being only 6'1", the guard averaged six boards a game and led the team.
And that's crucial for a Huskies team that is often streaky from the field. If they're not hitting their shots with consistency, they need to clean up on the glass. That's not exactly rocket science, but it doesn't make it any less important.
The Huskies only lost two games this season where they out-rebounded their opponent. One of those, against Louisville, was only because they missed so many shots—15-of-51 from the field—that it was hard not to snag a bunch of rebounds.
In five of its other six losses, UConn was beaten on the glass only once. The Huskies will need to stay strong, especially against the bigger, more physical teams and snag their share of rebounds if they want to shock a few people.
Play the Next Game Not the Last One
UConn is going to have to prove itself in a hurry, drawing a dangerous St. Joseph's team in second-round action.
The Hawks (24-9, 11-5 A-10) came into championship week on the bubble, but they left no doubt, securing their ticket by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament over VCU on Sunday afternoon at the Barclays Center.
They can really shoot the ball and will enter the field of 68 with a ton of momentum. This is a very dangerous matchup for Kevin Ollie's group, and if they're not careful, they could see their first trip back to the tournament turn into a disappointing one-and-done.
The Huskies had a chance to come into the field with just as much, if not more, momentum than their opponent, but they failed to get over the hump, falling to Louisville for the third time this season in the AAC tournament championship game on Saturday night.
That was a bitter disappointment—especially given how they knocked off Memphis and Cincinnati to get that far—and could have a hangover effect that could hurt UConn at the worst possible time.
Guarding against that is crucial, because a potential third-round tilt with former longtime Big East rival Villanova has intrigue written all over it.
Undone by an Old Rival
The Huskies have to be happy about returning to the NCAA field and particularly to the East Region.
But they have a killer draw and are going to have an extremely difficult time advancing beyond the first weekend and into the Sweet 16. And that's a shame, because if matched better, this team could've surprised a few people.
St. Joseph's is a dangerous opponent in the second round, but Napier and company should have enough to shoot their way into the third round.
Daniels, Brimah and the rest of the Huskies frontcourt will need to do work, particularly by limiting Hawks forward Ronald Roberts Jr. on the glass, but they should have enough to nip a close one against the Atlantic 10 tourney champs.
But then the real festivities begin.
It was less than a year ago that a UConn-Villanova matchup was nothing special. The two teams met a minimum of two times a year as members of the old Big East. The Huskies generally held the upper hand in the series, but the games were always fun and competitive.
But after last season, Villanova left along with several other Big East schools to form a new conference. UConn wasn't invited and instead led the charge in the development of the new American Athletic Conference.
Just like that. Rivalry gone.
They'll get a chance to rekindle old acquaintances in the third round of this year's NCAA tournament, but Jay Wright's Wildcats will be just too good and too deep for the Huskies this time around.
Prediction: Lose in third round to Villanova.