Key Matchup in UConn-Louisville Could Take Place on the WingPosted by Will Tucker on January 18th, 2014
Heading into the first of two games between UConn and Louisville this year, the most obvious narratives have already been explored at length. On paper, the battle between senior All-America candidates Shabazz Napier and Russ Smith stands out as the most intriguing match-up, as the diminutive guards have been scoring prolifically and dramatically all year. They figure to do much of the heavy lifting, with backcourt partners Ryan Boatright and Terry Rozier playing a supporting role. UConn big men Amida Brimah, Phil Nolan and Tyler Olander will try to contain Montrezl Harrell the same way they slowed down Memphis in the paint.
But the match-up that could ultimately dictate the outcome of the game will take place at the three and four spots, between DeAndre Daniels and Wayne Blackshear. Certainly, Luke Hancock has been playing magnificently in the early part of the Cardinals’ AAC schedule, but Daniels presents an NBA-caliber mismatch that could overpower Hancock and outmaneuver Harrell. Blackshear is much better equipped to guard him at multiple points on the floor, and as a result, he’ll likely be the one who is on the floor with the game on the line tonight. Both Blackshear and Daniels are highly skilled wings who have failed to meet lofty expectations after showing tremendous potential as sophomores. Both former five-star recruits have frustrated their coaches with their tentativeness and lack of productivity on the boards. And both appear poised to put it all together and become consistent go-to weapons for their teams.
Daniels seems to have already rounded the learning curve. Prior to logging an explosive double-double at Memphis, he had averaged 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, and four blocks per game in consecutive wins over Harvard and UCF. Although he’s strung together high-scoring games earlier in the season, his confidence and effort on defense appear to be catching up. Last year in the XL Center, Daniels recorded nine points and five rebounds in 32 minutes during a demoralizing 73-58 loss to the eventual national champions. Kevin Ollie will need the talented 6’9” junior to contribute more on both ends of the floor in order for the Huskies to avenge that loss in Gampel Pavilion tonight.
Although signs of Blackshear’s improvements this year are less conclusive, he too seems ready to shed the perplexing inconsistency that has mystified Rick Pitino and Cardinals fans alike. Early in the season, many viewed 2013-14 as Blackshear’s opportunity to grow into his own and surpass Luke Hancock as his team’s preferred option on the wing. But his playing time has remained steady at around 20 minutes per game, largely due to the former McDonald’s All-American being hampered by foul trouble: he’s already racked up three foul-outs, including the Kentucky loss. He’s also failed to hit the boards effectively this season, pulling in an underwhelming 3.3 rebounds per game, and Pitino has made it clear that he needs more rebounding from his wings on this relatively poor rebounding team.
Coming off the bench for the first time this season against Houston on Thursday, Blackshear responded emphatically to his coach’s challenge with a 23-point, seven-rebound performance in which he hit five of six three-pointers and committed only three fouls in 29 minutes. It was the first time he had grabbed six or more rebounds since the season opener, and he looked more decisive in almost everything he did on the court. With that in mind, don’t be surprised if tonight’s game is determined not by the heroics of Smith and Napier, and not by the failure of either frontcourt to perform adequately, but by whether either Blackshear or Daniels can expose and exploit an advantage over the other.