How desperate is Wednesday night?
Are all NCAA Tournament dreams gone with a loss on the road to Syracuse?
For the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, their upcoming game at Syracuse will have far more lasting implications on the Huskies’ season than it ever could for the No. 2/No. 3 ranked Orange.
Syracuse is a team that sits at 23-1 and has lost just one game since dropping their exhibition opener to Division II LeMoyne College—unquestionably the most notable upset in college basketball this season.
Syracuse has won 10 games in a row and in the past week they have dismantled a Providence Friars team by 17 points and wrapped up a second game by 17 points, closing out the Cincinnati Bearcats with a 28-5 run over the final 12 minutes on the road. These are the same two teams to whom UConn lost by a combined 17 points already this season.
The prospects for Wednesday night’s game do not look favorable for UConn. They never are when you head to the Carrier Dome, but this year’s edition of the Orange might be the most talented version since the 2003 championship team.
Syracuse has the front-runner for Big East Player of the Year, and arguably one of the most versatile players in the conference, on their team in Wesley Johnson. Johnson, a junior transfer from Iowa State, is averaging 16.2 PPG and 8.8 RPG on 54 percent shooting including 41 percent on three-pointers this season.
The two keys for the Huskies on Wednesday night will be how they neutralize the Orange’s main scoring threat for a full 40 minutes as well as how they neutralize the entire team from the outside. In their last three games which have resulted in just a single, seven point win over Big East bottom-feeder DePaul, Connecticut is allowing their opponents to shoot 44 percent from beyond the arc. They were able to overcome an 8 of16 three point shooting performance by the Blue Demons Saturday night to muster a win on their home court, but poor exterior defense cost the Huskies in losses to both Louisville and Providence.
Even if UConn is able to shut down Syracuse from the outside, negating the impact of Johnson will be the bigger challenge. Stanley Robinson will almost certainly draw the assignment to cover the crafty 6’7” small forward. Just as Robinson provides opposing coaches with match-up headaches when he is on the court, at times this season Robinson’s uninspired man-to-man defense has been a match-up problem for his own coach.
Robinson is preternaturally athletic and is seemingly always the most athletic man in any arena he plays, but those abilities do not always translate into defensive execution. In losses to Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Marquette, Robinson’s main assignments had their way with him. He allowed 33 points to Austin Freeman, 19 points to Brad Wanamaker and 21 points to Jimmy Butler respectively—all in losses. Particularly in the loss to Georgetown, Robinson allowed Freeman to score 28 of his 33 points in the second half to turn a 19 point UConn lead into a three point loss.
There is no doubt that Syracuse’s Johnson is better than any of the three aforementioned players, but for once Johnson will not be more athletic than the man assigned to guard him. The match-up problem with Robinson guarding Johnson might be something the Huskies are unable to overcome, but if Robinson focuses his energy on the defensive end of the court Wednesday night UConn just might have a fighting chance.
What if UConn loses Wednesday night? The Huskies’ bubble won’t have burst quite yet, but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi will be grabbing his pin and getting it ready. It's a long season, but with a hypothetical 14-10 (4-7) record with just one win over a ranked opponent following a potential loss to Syracuse, the odds to claw their way back into the NCAA Tournament picture would be firmly stacked against Connecticut.
The solution? A statement win at the Carrier Dome.
The motivation? The last game these two teams played ended in 6-OT heartbreak for the Huskies.