Biggest Challenges UConn Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. St. Joseph's

Kevin McRaeFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Biggest Challenges UConn Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. St. Joseph's

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    The No. 7 seed UConn Huskies (26-8) return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in two years on Thursday afternoon in Buffalo, N.Y., taking on the surging No. 10 seed St. Joseph's Hawks.

    The last time the Huskies took the court during March Madness was in 2012. That team lost to Iowa State in the second round, and this year's bunch will be looking to extend their stay beyond that. UConn is accustomed to being perennial national title contenders, but this time around, the road to glory begins against St. Joe's, and nothing is guaranteed. 

    The Hawks present many challenges—not only for the Huskies but for any team that could face them in the tournament. They have an extremely talented guard in Langston Galloway, a unique hybrid forward in Halil Kanacevic and a ton of momentum. 

    This game is anything but a gimme for Kevin Ollie's bunch, and if they hope to carve out their own March legacy in Huskies lore, the road begins on Thursday.

    These are the top challenges that UConn faces in its second-round contest with St. Joseph's.

Napier Must Make His Shots

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    Shabazz Napier, who captured the inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award, is the Huskies' best player—by far—and one of the best in the nation this season. He's drawn some favorable comparisons to a certain UConn guard who led his school to a national championship in 2011—Napier's freshman season in Storrs—and he has the ability to come up clutch.

    Who can forget his buzzer-beating shot against then No. 15 Florida on Dec. 2 in Storrs—one of only two Gators' losses all season? That win put the Huskies on the map as a possible national title contender.

    When Napier is on, the Huskies are dangerous and could beat anybody in the East Region. And yes, that includes Villanova, Michigan State and anyone else in front of them. 

    But Napier is far too inconsistent for his team's own good. When he makes his shots, the Huskies win. 

    When he doesn't, they lose. 

    If the streaky Napier shows up—like the one who went 5-of-19 against Cincinnati in February—then UConn will have a long trip back from Buffalo to Storrs on Friday.

    He needs to do more than get his points; he has to hit his shots. If not, the Hawks should be primed for an upset.

St. Joe's Is Red Hot

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    St. Joseph's definitely has all the momentum in its corner right now. 

    The Hawks chose an excellent time to play their best basketball of the season, entering the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center as a borderline contender for an at-large bid. They did have 21 wins, but their case wasn't helped at all by bad losses to Temple and LaSalle. 

    You also couldn't find a single significant nonconference win. 

    But they closed the deal, knocking off Dayton (who was also on the bubble), St. Bonavanture—who had defeated No. 1 seed St. Louis in the previous round—and VCU to cut down the nets and snag their guaranteed tournament berth. 

    For those at home who are keeping score, the Hawks beat two tournament teams in three days to secure their spot to the Big Dance. That's an impressive run, and it definitely provides a huge confidence boost.

    St. Joe's knows it can play with anybody, and it has been playing elimination games basically since the start of the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Hawks are talented, confident and ready to continue showing they can hang with the best teams in the country.

    That's a dangerous mix, especially when paired with all the momentum at their backs.

Interior Defense/Rebounding

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    The Huskies are a better rebounding team than they were a season ago—they have infused a couple of new, young bodies on the frontcourt—but they're still not going to wow you with their activity on the boards. 

    They have been largely manhandled, pushed around and generally overmatched in the paint in their most recent games. They're coming up against a St. Joseph's frontcourt that has a couple of big bodies that can bang around, grab boards and score the basketball.

    Halil Kanacevic isn't a prototypical forward; he's a big body and can rebound, but he prefers to direct the offense, and we'll deal with him later.

    Ronald Roberts Jr., a 6'8", 225-pound senior, is one of the most efficient interior scorers in the game. He averages more than 14 points and seven boards a game, and he does it on 59.8 percent shooting. That's correcthe shoots nearly 60 percent from the field and ranks 10th in the nation with that mark.

    That gives the Hawks two solid rebounding options, which presents the Huskies with a bit of a problem.

    St. Joe's out-rebounded their opponents on average 36-33, and in a potentially close game, those boards and second-chance points could prove crucial.

    That means somebody—it could be DeAndre Daniels or Amida Brimah—needs to step up for the Huskies, play some solid interior defense and grab some of those boards.

Tempo

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    The Huskies like to play a slow, methodical tempo. They don't really run the fast break, they don't score a ton of points in transition, and they're most comfortable with the action at a deliberate pace.

    This allows them to set up their offense, move the ball around and find the right shot. 

    Napier and company will struggle against any team that gets them up and down the floor, and the Hawks can do that.

    St. Joe's likes to move the basketball. The Hawks have a couple of tremendous players—Galloway and Kanacevic—and some other nice pieces. If they can move the basketball effectively on offense, drain their threes—they shot 38 percent from long range as a team, and Galloway connected on 44 percent—and put serious pressure on UConn's offense, they could force turnovers and mistakes.

    The Huskies averaged 12 turnovers as a team this season, and Napier in particular can sometimes develop a case of the dropsies when pressured.

    UConn needs to play its game at a particular tempo in order to be successful.

    If the Hawks can deny that, they should be headed toward a grudge match with Villanova in the third round.

Halil Kanacevic

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    If you want to see a matchup nightmare, look no further than the 6'8", 255-pound Kanacevic.

    The Staten Island, N.Y., product is not a typical power forward. He can score the basketball—not just at the rim but basically anywhere on the floor.

    But he likes to architect the offense, leading the team in assists. He can also drain a three, connecting on 37 percent of his attempts on the season.

    His unique skills make him difficult to game-plan, and there's going to be a bit of an adjustment period for the Huskies as they figure out how to match his size, strength and ability to drain baskets from all over the court. 

    Combined with Galloway, Kanacevic gives St. Joe's two very solid to excellent players. He's something of a stat stuffer, and when you look at his lines for the season, you can see how hard he is to stop.

    He just does so many things well.

    Kanacevic averaged 10.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game on the season. But that's not all. He also delivers about three blocks a game.

    For the Huskies, DeAndre Daniels is a smaller, quicker player with a somewhat similar profile. He's going to put up a few more points than Kanacevic, but he doesn't rebound as well, and he's not going to give much of anything in terms of assists.

    But he'll need to give his team some solid work on the defensive end in this game. Otherwise, Kanacevic and the Hawks are going to be tough to beat.