UConn vs. St. Joseph's: Biggest X-Factors in Round of 64 Game
The No. 7 seed UConn Huskies (26-8) are back in the Big Dance, and they'll play their first meaningful game in March in more than two years on Thursday night in Buffalo. They're taking on the dangerous No. 10 seed St. Joseph's Hawks (24-9) in the second round of the East Region.
The Huskies, who dropped the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament finals to Louisville on Saturday, are considered something of a sleeper pick in the East Region. They are led by a pair of guards—Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright—who, when hot, are as good as any tandem in the nation.
But the Huskies didn't receive any favors from the selection committee in this matchup.
The Hawks, who entered championship week firmly on the bubble, left nothing to chance, capturing the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship with a 65-61 victory over Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday.
With the automatic bid in its back pocket, St. Joseph's didn't need to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. The Hawks definitely have the stuff to not only make this a game but make the Huskies' return to March Madness a short stay.
In a game that's likely to be this close, everything matters, and the team that wins will be the one that executes.
Here are the X-factors that will determine who has the edge and who advances to a likely rivalry match with No. 2 seed Villanova in the third round.
Which Shabazz Napier Will Show Up?
Napier didn't win the inaugural AAC Player of the Year award for nothing. He's the engine that makes the Huskies move, and when he's on, they're a very tough team to beat.
When he's on is the key part of that sentence, because it's not always the case.
He tends to be a streaky player, and streaky in the NCAA tournament just won't cut it.
The 6'1" senior guard—who was a freshman on UConn's 2011 national championship team—led the Huskies in scoring this season with 17-plus points, just less than six rebounds and five assists per game. Those are very solid numbers, and when he hits them, his team plays well and wins.
When he doesn't, well, you can pretty much figure that part out for yourself.
Napier is one of those players who is going to get his points every night, for the most part. It's just a matter of how he gets them.
For the season, he averaged 42 percent shooting from the field.
But in UConn's eight losses, that number dipped to 35 percent. His point totals remained relatively steady, but he missed a ton of shots, and for a team that's not particularly good on the glass, that's a big problem.
For the Huskies to take down the Hawks, they'll need the sharpshooting Napier, and not the streaky bricklayer, to show up in Buffalo.
How Much Does Momentum Matter?
If momentum matters in the NCAA tournament, then St. Joseph's has an excellent chance of downing the Huskies and moving on to a grudge match with longtime rival Villanova in the third round.
The Hawks, a borderline but not guaranteed NCAA tournament team entering championship week, secured their spot by running the table in the Atlantic 10 tournament, knocking off two eventual tournament teams Dayton and VCU en route to the championship.
That type of run shows not only the character of a team but allows them to enter the field of 68 with a ton of wind at their backs.
The Hawks will come into Thursday's tilt with the Huskies knowing that they played their best basketball when it mattered the most. With a tournament berth on the line, they didn't just make their case—they sealed the deal.
As for UConn?
The Huskies come into the tournament having won nine of their last 12 games. But it's their final loss that could be the one that haunts them.
They dropped a 71-61 game to Louisville in the AAC finals on Saturday—their third defeat by the Cardinals this season. They'll need to put that game out of their minds, or else St. Joseph’s will put them out of the tournament.
Can DeAndre Daniels Contain Halil Kanacevic?
To say that St. Joseph's big man Halil Kanacevic is a tad unorthodox would be understating it by a fair bit.
The 6'9", 255-pound Staten Island, N.Y. product has the body type to be a big, banging power forward, but he's much more comfortable with being the architect of the Hawks offense. He led the team in assists this season, dishing out more than four per game, and he creates all kinds of matchup problems.
He was named the most outstanding performer of the Atlantic 10 tournament—after averaging 15.3 points and 14.3 boards over the three games—and has great court vision and the ability to connect from long range.
Responsibility for guarding him and shutting him down will fall on the broad shoulders of Huskies’ junior DeAndre Daniels.
And that's one heck of a tall task.
Daniels is maddeningly inconsistent. He has games where you look at him and can't help but wonder why he's not a star. But then he often follows that performance up with a game that answers your question.
He got off to a great start to this season but suffered through a tough stretch after tweaking his ankle in a Jan. 25 road win over Rutgers.
The 6'9" Daniels isn't the most physical player—Kanacevic has him by about 60 pounds—but he moves well, can shoot from outside and will need to be both aggressive and efficient on both sides of the ball if he hopes to hang in this matchup.
What Happens If Langston Galloway Gets Hot?
Langston Galloway is capable of shooting—literally—the Hawks into the third round of the NCAA tournament. He's an extremely talented guard who was named the Most Valuable Player in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament.
He averages more than 17 points per contest and is lethal from three-point range if he's left unchecked.
Over the course of the entire season, he led the Atlantic 10 with 104 three-pointers, and he nailed them at an excellent rate of just less than 44 percent. He is a sharpshooter, and the Huskies will need to keep their eyes on him whenever he’s on the court.
In other words, he's the type of player with the capacity to get hot, light you up and bury you with threes before you even figure out what went wrong.
And Galloway is made all the more dangerous by the fact that he isn't just a chucker. He has a propensity for hitting clutch shots, particularly from long range, and as a senior, he knows when his shot is there and when it's not.
For all that's been written and will follow about this game, the key matchup will likely pit two of the more talented guards in the tournament squarely against one another.
It's Galloway vs. Napier, and whoever wins that battle will likely win the game.
Will Kevin Ollie Struggle in His First Game as a Head Coach in the Tournament?
Kevin Ollie has done a nice job of filling into the gargantuan shoes left by legendary Huskies coach Jim Calhoun since his retirement in September of 2012.
Ollie has amassed a record of 46-18 (.719) and has quickly developed a reputation for being one of the brightest young coaching minds in the sport.
As a player, he was tough, gritty and hardworking. In an NBA career that spanned parts of 13 seasons, he suited up for 12 different teams and was known for his leadership and high character both on and off the court.
After calling it a career in the NBA—after playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2009-10 season—he got a job as an assistant at his alma mater, working under Calhoun. He coached alongside the legend when the Huskies captured the 2011 national title.
The best thing you can say about a coach is that his team reflects his philosophy and values on the court, and the Huskies certainly do that. They play with the type of hard-nosed, gritty style that Ollie did as a player, which he has tried to instill in his team as a coach.
But now it's March, and this is a whole different ballgame.
Nobody is saying or implying that he's in over his head or will suddenly forget how to coach.
Nobody is saying that a man with as much time in and around the game of basketball as Ollie doesn't have the experience to win at this level or on this stage.
But it's his first NCAA tournament game as a head coach, and his team will be returning to a tournament that it has historically been one of the favorites to win. That's a lot of pressure, and it'll be interesting to see how he responds—and if he makes any mistakes.
This one has the look and feel of a game that could go down to the wire. The teams are evenly matched and well-coached and have players who are capable of taking over the game.
Don't expect either team to run away on the scoreboard, and in tight games, it's often the little details that matter.
And in this particular case, you need look no further than free-throw shooting.
UConn is one of the best teams in the nation from the stripe. On the season, the Huskies connected on 76 percent of their 700-plus attempts, and they have two guards who are virtually automatic from the line. Napier (85.9 percent) and Ryan Boatright (78.6 percent) like to drive, draw fouls and get points the easy way, and they’re good at it.
Neither leaves a ton of points on the line.
St. Joseph's, on the other hand, isn't a very good foul-shooting team. Actually, that's putting it mildly. The Hawks stink from the line to the tune of being the 329th-ranked team in the nation (64.1 percent) when it comes to making their freebies.
That's a major problem. You can't leave easy points on the floor, and that's just what the Hawks do. In a close, competitive game against UConn, that will cost them.
Prediction: UConn 74, St. Joseph's 70