Five wins in five days. Four straight wins over ranked opponents. Led by the electrifying, ankle-breaking antics of Kemba Walker, Uconn accomplished something that had never been done before in college basketball. More importantly, however, they got their confidence back; something which had most certainly deteriorated during their lackluster 1-4 stretch to end the regular season.
Having started the season 17-2, Connecticut was looking like a title contender behind Walker's stellar scoring average of 24.4 ppg. Over the last 11 games, though, Walker's scoring average dropped to below 21 ppg along with his field goal percentage, which stooped to an unsightly 39 percent. Not coincidentally, as Kemba's play started to slip, the Huskies began to lose more and more games.
Then the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden came along. As most of you probably know, the kid from the Bronx had a sensational week, averaging 26 ppg to go along with some late-game heroics. If we separate the Huskies' season into these three stages that have been mentioned, an almost crystal clear formula begins to emerge: If Kemba Walker plays very well, Uconn wins almost all of the time; if Walker merely plays well or even sub-par, Uconn is a mediocre team that wins just as many games as it loses.
In an increasingly similar situation to the one facing BYU and Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker must have an above-average game in order for the Huskies to beat the better teams in the country. While not a one-man show by any means (Jeremy Lamb in particular has stepped up recently), Connecticut simply cannot afford to have Walker play less than spectacular if they wish to advance to the later stages of the tournament. With that in mind, let's try to predict the Huskies' Final Four chances by looking at their matchups round-by-round.
After looking like they easily could have dropped to a No. 5 seed before the Big East Tournament started, UConn got a reasonably favorable draw in the West region as the No. 3 seed. First up for the Storrs men is little-known Bucknell (25-8, 13-1) from the Patriot league. To be perfectly honest, I probably know as much about Bucknell as the next guy, but there are a few critical things I've noticed when looking at their resume:
-They've only beaten two tournament teams (Richmond and Boston University) all season, with Richmond being the only team ranked inside the top 50.
-Despite their strong conference record, they have some horrific losses on their resume; most notably Wagner, Army and St.Francis of Pennsylvania.
-They are the 215th best rebounding team in the country so expect Oriakhi and Smith to dominate the boards.
While it's a safe bet that a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed will go down each year in the first round (see Georgetown, 2010), I just can't see Uconn being the team to falter so early in the tournament this time round.
Prediction: Uconn 85-67 over Bucknell
Having beaten Cincinnati just a couple of weeks ago, in addition to their newfound Big East prowess, you'd have to believe Uconn would feel pretty confident about matching up with one of the mediocre teams in the conference. Missouri, however, present a far more dangerous challenge with their run-and-gun style of play.
The Tigers, who play a frenetic brand of basketball, are the ninth highest scoring team in the country at 81.4 ppg, whereas Uconn score only 73.4 ppg. If the Huskies allow the game to played at Missouri's pace, they could be in for a rude awakening from a team that narrowly lost to Kansas 70-66 in its regular season finale.
The key to avoiding that kind of upset for Connecticut is undoubtedly rebounding. Missouri ranks 151st in rebounding and have a leading rebounder in Laurence Bowers who only averages 6.1 boards per game. If Uconn, ranked 11th in that category, can control the glass and get at least an average game from Walker, expect them to move on to the Sweet 16 after a hard-fought battle.
Prediction: Uconn 78-74 Missouri
For argument's sake, let's assume that San Diego State (32-2) makes it past the Temple/Penn State winner as it would be a rather big surprise if either of those teams pulled the upset in the second round. SDSU has only two losses on the season, both at the hands of BYU. These were, of course, avenged in their convincing defeat of the Brandon Davies-less Cougars in the MWC championship game on Saturday. Their most important player is unquestionably the 6'7" forward Kawhi Leonard, who averages a double-double on the season. Despite the fact that they're tied for the best record heading into the tournament with Ohio State, here are some negatives to consider when looking at SDSU:
- 0 tournament victories in their history - This is always a red flag come tourney time. Playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time brings with it added pressure, especially when you've been given a high seed to go along with high expectations. Don't underestimate how difficult it is to go from playing in the Mountain West Conference to the Big Dance.
- Poor free-throw shooting team (70 percent) - Another red flag for teams looking to make a deep run. Going back to the previous point, the poor free-throw shooting will probably be magnified when combined with the pressure of playing in the tournament. As we saw with Memphis in 2008, free-throw woes always come back to haunt you in late-game, pressurized situations. Uconn, on the other hand, shoots over 75 percent from the charity stripe.
- Lack of consistent quality competition - Although the MWC is one of the stronger mid-majors in the country, SDSU's strength of schedule still pales in comparison with Connecticut's Big East opponents. They've only played two tournament teams all year (BYU and Gonzaga), whereas Uconn has been playing top-tier teams all year long.
When it comes down to it, I think Uconn's experience and proven ability to beat quality teams will result in a hard-fought victory over the Aztecs. This will, however, be the first game that will require an MSG-caliber performance from Kemba Walker for the Huskies to advance.
Prediction: Uconn 75-70 SDSU
In my opinion, Duke will be the ones awaiting Uconn when they arrive in Anaheim for the Regional Final. I can't see the defending champs losing either of their first two games in Charlotte, with the home crowd squarely in their favor. As for Texas, they've been too inconsistent all season to predict a sustained run of success for the Longhorns in this year's tournament. Incidentally, if Texas did happen to make it to the Elite Eight, I'd fancy Uconn's chances against them. For now, though, let's focus on the Blue Devils.
Having seen them lose to both Virginia Tech and North Carolina in recent weeks, I wasn't particularly sold on Duke's chances of a repeat. But watching them come out on Sunday with a defensive intensity that can only be described as suffocating, removed many (not all) of my doubts.
Nolan Smith's on-ball defense was spectacular as he forced multiple turnovers, Harrison Barnes couldn't buy an open shot for love nor money and the Plumlee brothers made Tyler Zeller throw up one hideous shot after another in the lane. On the offensive end, Andre Dawkins was stroking the ball from long-range, and Nolan Smith managed to orchestrate the offense on a day when neither he nor Kyle Singler shot the ball well (combined 11-32).
Not to take too much away from one game, but Sunday was a perfect illustration of how well-rounded Duke are as a team. The Blue Devils can survive lackluster performances from their two best players because they have guys like the Plumlees and Seth Curry (We all know what Currys are capable of in March) who can pick up the slack.
Uconn, on the other hand, relies too much on the scoring ability of Kemba Walker. Expect Duke to play the same kind of nagging trap defense against the Huskies as it did with UNC in an effort to get the ball out of Walker's hands. If Duke plays up to or near its potential, I think this will be the game where, in a shootout, it will finally be too heavy a load for Kemba to carry by himself.
P.S. Did I mention Kyrie Irving could very well be playing in this game? I'm guessing he could probably have an impact.
Prediction: Duke 76-68 Uconn.