RTC Final Four Snapshots: Connecticut HuskiesPosted by zhayes9 on March 29th, 2011
Rush the Court’s Zach Hayes will deliver a breakdown of each Final Four team every day this week. We continue the breakdown with Jim Calhoun’s fourth Final Four squad at Connecticut.
Crucial Tourney Moments: Connecticut had relatively smooth sailing through their first two tournament games against Bucknell and Cincinnati, but had to withstand strong rallies from both San Diego State and Arizona to advance to their second Final Four in three years. Jeremy Lamb made crucial buckets down the stretch in both affairs, none more important than his triple after an offensive rebound with under a minute to play against the Aztecs that provided UConn sufficient breathing room. Of course, it’s been Kemba Walker’s heroics late in games that have defined this team all season long. His setback jumper gave the Huskies a five-point lead with 1:18 to play against Arizona and sent them on their way. Connecticut has won an incredible nine games in 19 days.
Advantage Area: Jim Calhoun has changed lineups all season, alternating between a bigger unit with both Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu on the floor and a smaller lineup with Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel at the 4. Calhoun also begins the game with Kemba Walker orchestrating the offense at the point, but soon brings Shabazz Napier off the pine for 25-30 minutes that allows Walker to focus on scoring as a 2-guard. This type of flexibility and changeover could pose matchup problems for the Wildcats, especially if they involve Josh Harrellson in ball-screening action with Oriakhi that either forces a switch or allows Walker just enough time to penetrate in the lane where he’s virtually uncontainable. Not only does Napier allow Walker or Lamb free reign to run off baseline screens, but his pesky on-ball defense could frustrate the engine that runs the Kentucky offense, their point guard Brandon Knight and either Shelvin Mack or Joey Rodriguez in the final.
Potential Downfall: During the Huskies first meeting with Kentucky in Maui, freshman Terrence Jones torched them for 21 points on 11 shots, mostly because neither Oriakhi nor Okwandu could slow down Jones on dribble penetration. If Calhoun elects to put a quicker defender on Jones, the 6’8 frame of the former Washington commit opens up opportunities to post up and operate down low in the post as he did on a few occasions when Carolina big man John Henson was on the floor with four fouls. Jones has to be aggressive and demand the basketball, though, which is not always a given. Matching Kentucky from three could also be a downfall if Connecticut falls behind late. The Wildcats are the polar opposite of last year’s version, shooting a precise 40% from three as a team, seventh in the nation. UConn, on the other hand, shoots at just a 34% clip from deep, 201st in the country.
X-Factor: Alex Oriakhi was this team’s barometer early in the season. When the UConn big man showed up, as he did in Maui and against Texas, the Huskies usually emerged victorious. When he disappeared, the team was all Kemba all the time and suffered. The problem with that theory is that Oriakhi hasn’t scored in double figures once during the NCAA Tournament and Connecticut hasn’t lost. I’ll go with Jeremy Lamb. His emergence as the Robin to Walker’s Batman has been the single biggest development that’s vaulted UConn on this improbable run. His clutch and efficient shot-making in the Big East and NCAA Tournament is the main difference between Connecticut during their losing streak in conference play and their nine-game winning streak heading into the weekend.
Key Semifinal Matchup: John Calipari has elected to put DeAndre Liggins on the opposing point guard in order to disrupt offensive flow. Even though Aaron Craft isn’t necessarily a potent scoring weapon, Calipari felt that Liggins’ length and defensive prowess could frustrate the orchestration of Ohio State’s halfcourt attack. Look for UK’s ace defender and most experienced player to track Kemba Walker for nearly 40 minutes on Saturday. Liggins will be the best individual defender Walker has faced thus far in the NCAA Tournament and possibly all season.
Crunch Time Performer: Not much thought went into this decision. From his game-winner against Wichita State in the Maui opener to the numerous clutch jumpers to lead UConn through their five-day trek in New York City, the junior Walker has been the single most outstanding crunch time performer in the sport all year long. Don’t overlook Lamb as a late-game contributor, though. When Walker wasn’t in a good flow late in the second half against Arizona, he pushed Calhoun to draw up baseline stagger screens to give Lamb room for jumpers and the freshman delivered.
Experience Level: Outside of Walker facing Michigan State in a national semifinal as a freshman, experience is a severe disadvantage for the Huskies if you think that really matters. I’d argue that their poise and composure in big games the entire season has rendered any lack of experience irrelevant. Kemba Walker has taken more important shots in crucial end-of-game moments than anyone in college basketball. Plus, they’ll face a Kentucky team whose rotation is half composed of freshmen.
Forecast: I may be making a cardinal sin betting against Walker, but my reasoning for leaning towards Kentucky is the multitude of weapons they can go to offensively. Whether it’s Knight, Jones, Liggins, Miller, Lamb or the remarkable emergence of Josh Harrellson, Calipari’s entire rotation has the capability to provide 15 points in a winning effort. I like their balance slightly more than Connecticut and believe the Huskies fall short in the national semifinal just as they did two seasons ago.