5 Biggest Questions for UConn in NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 vs. Iowa State
The UConn Huskies will make their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2011 on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The No. 7 seed Huskies (28-8) will face the No. 2 Iowa State Cyclones (27-8) for a spot in the Elite Eight, and they'll be hoping to follow in the footsteps of the last UConn team to get this far in the tournament.
The 2011 Huskies, led by Kemba Walker, defeated San Diego State in the Sweet 16 but didn't stop there. They went on to capture the school's third national title, defeating Butler 53-41 in the finals.
But that's getting a bit ahead of ourselves. The Cyclones are one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the tournament, and even without star forward Georges Niang, they have plenty of players who can hurt UConn. They took down No. 6 seed North Carolina on Sunday in one of the oddest finishes you'll ever see, using a last-second bucket from DeAndre Kane to secure an 85-83 victory.
The Huskies upset No. 2 seed, and former Big East rival, Villanova on Saturday night to get to New York City. They were led by 2014 All-American guard Shabazz Napier, who willed his team to victory with 25 points despite missing a good deal of the first half.
This has the potential to be an exciting, close, down-to-the-wire type of game.
But before UConn and Iowa State take the court, we have to look at these five crucial questions.
Can Shabazz Napier Continue His Kemba-Esque Run?
Napier wasn't good against Villanova in the second round on Saturday night. He wasn't even great.
He was elite.
He scored 25 points in total—21 of them in the second half after getting into early foul trouble—to guide UConn to its first Sweet 16 since Kemba Walker took his team there in 2011.
Walker led the Huskies—with Napier coming off the bench as a valuable reserve—to a national championship that year, and if Napier keeps playing like he did on Saturday, he could repeat the feat.
That may have seemed crazy a couple of weeks ago, but with two games already in their back pocket, the Huskies are just four wins shy of the ultimate goal.
And that's largely due to the leadership of their best player and reigning American Athletic Conference player of the year.
Napier struggled in the first half of UConn's two tournament games. Against St. Joseph's in the second round, he had just five points on 2-of-8 shooting. He wasn't much better against Villanova, playing just eight minutes and scoring four points.
But in the second half, with the games on the line, Napier was money. He dropped 19 in the second half and overtime against St. Joe's and 21 against Villanova.
They say that big players come up in big spots.
Napier has certainly done that in this year's tournament, averaging 24.5 points—with 20 of that coming after the half—and if he continues, his team could be cutting down the nets.
Just like Walker's did.
Can the Huskies Limit the Tempo?
UConn might be facing a nightmare stylistic matchup against Iowa State.
The Cyclones like to keep the game at a brisk pace, playing uptempo, scoring quickly, pressuring the ball and getting a lot of possessions. They don’t take their time, and they don’t linger on offense.
Iowa State averages 74.6 possessions per game, which places it near the top of the nation and gives it plenty of scoring opportunities.
The Huskies are a far more deliberate team.
Napier and company like to play at a slow, methodical pace, moving the ball around and finding the right shot. They're particularly vulnerable to a team that can get the ball up and down the court on them in a hurry, and Iowa State is certainly that...and then some.
UConn will need to slow this game down if it’s going to emerge from Madison Square Garden with an appearance in the Elite Eight.
If the Huskies allow the Cyclones to play at their preferred tempo, Iowa State will run them off the court. But if they can impose their pace, limit Iowa State in transition and be smart with the basketball, UConn could be on its way to the Elite Eight.
Can UConn Score Enough Points?
The Huskies have averaged 83 points per game as a team in tournament play, and they're going to need to be right around that number in order to stay in the game against a Cyclone team that is capable of putting up big points in a hurry.
Iowa State plays a fast tempo, has a bunch of guys who can score the basketball and averaged a fifth best in the nation 83.2 points per game this season. The Cyclones move the ball very well, are unselfish and led the nation with 18.5 assists per game.
Many felt that they would struggle to recover from the loss of forward Georges Niang, but thus far, they've more than held their own.
Niang suffered a season-ending broken foot in a second-round victory over North Carolina Central. He was vital to the Cyclones’ success this season—averaging just less than 17 points per contest—and had 24 points against NC Central before the injury.
But even without him, Iowa State has its share of offensive weapons.
DeAndre Kane, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Marshall, was one of the best players in the country this season. With Niang sidelined, he stepped up for 24 points and 10 rebounds in a third-round win over North Carolina.
Melvin Ejim averaged more than 18 points and eight boards per game during the regular season, and he’s right about on those numbers with 18 points and six boards in two tournament games.
Dustin Hogue has stepped up the most. His scoring average has jumped from just under 11 points per game (10.9) during the regular season to 14.5 in the tournament.
With all those weapons on the court, you can bet that the Cyclones are going to score points. The question is: Can the Huskies match them?
Who Steps Up for UConn Against a Deep Cyclones Team?
Napier is obviously a tremendous individual talent, but he can't do it alone.
He'll be leading his team against an Iowa State squad that—even discounting the injured Niang—has four players who are averaging double digits in scoring over the first two games of the tournament.
Kane, Ejim, Hogue and Monte Morris have all averaged at least 14 points per game in wins over North Carolina Central and North Carolina.
That's a lot of different guys who can beat you, and it makes it that much more important for someone on UConn to take some of the scoring burden off Napier.
Ryan Boatright is capable. He has averaged 14 points on the nose during the tournament, but the real X-factor, once again, could be DeAndre Daniels.
He is averaging more than 14 points per game in UConn's wins over St. Joe's and Villanova. He has boatloads of talent, and against an Iowa State team that isn't particularly big or physical on the front line, he could be in position to have a breakout game.
Another player to watch is 7'0" freshman center Amida Brimah.
He showed a glimpse of his future potential with a nine-point, six-rebound effort in a come-from-behind second-round win over the Hawks. He came up big when his team needed him and had the play of the game, tying the contest with a three-point play in the closing seconds.
His size, length and ability to play big in the paint could be huge factors in this game. And if he plays big, Iowa State might struggle to contain him.
Will Home-Court Advantage Play a Role?
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
That quote would have worked much better if the Huskies were matching up with the Kansas Jayhawks in this Sweet 16 game, but even so, it still reflects an important point.
This isn't Iowa. Or anywhere close to it.
UConn has a ton of history at Madison Square Garden. It has played dozens of games in the arena as part of the old Big East, and its roster has three local New York players (Omar Calhoun, Terrence Samuel and Tor Watts).
The Huskies should have a pretty sizable, and thus significant, home-court advantage on Friday night at the sold-out Garden. Even though Iowa State will be wearing the white uniforms of the home team, it will be forced to—in essence—play its biggest game of the season on the road.
Think that doesn't matter? An overall 28-7 team, the Cyclones dropped six of their seven losses on the road. The lone game they lost all season at home came against Kansas in January.
To get to the Elite Eight, they'll have to win a game on a floor that is technically neutral, but in reality, will be as far from home as you can get.
It's very hard to pick against the Huskies, especially in Madison Square Garden and given the momentum they'll carry into this contest after downing longtime rival Villanova in third-round action.
But the Cyclones, top to bottom, are just a better team.
Even without Georges Niang—who will miss the remainder of the tournament—Iowa State has four players averaging double digits in scoring during March Madness. They match up with UConn very well in this game, and it's going to be difficult for the Huskies to keep pace and score enough points to advance.
Napier is riding the hot hand right now, but so is Kane. More than any other individual matchup in these Sweet 16 games, this one could determine the outcome of the contest.
Look for Napier to do what he does—score a ton of points when it matters—and keep this game in doubt until the very final seconds.
But when the chips are down, the Cyclones just have more players who are capable of hitting a big shot. They’ll take a narrow one from the Huskies, perhaps on a last-second shot, and advance to their first Elite Eight since 2000.
Prediction: Iowa State 82, UConn 79