Final Four Previews In-Depth: Connecticut HuskiesPosted by Brian Otskey (@botskey) on April 2nd, 2014
As part of our ongoing NCAA Tournament coverage, RTC is unveiling a detailed look at each of the Final Four teams throughout the week. Kentucky has already released. Today: UConn. Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent.
Where did this come from? I am not sure anyone out there had this #7 seed, which suffered a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on March 8, as a Final Four contender. Yet here they are. The Connecticut Huskies are here, and boy, did they earn it. After trailing Saint Joseph’s for a large portion of its opening round game, Connecticut manhandled Villanova to get to Madison Square Garden where it then dispatched Iowa State and Michigan State in thrilling fashion over the weekend. The Huskies are the underdog team in Arlington this week, but make no mistake; they too have a chance to win a pair of games at Jerry World.
Pre-Tournament Capsule. Connecticut played a mediocre non-conference schedule this season as games against Maryland, Boston College, Indiana and Washington looked good on paper but those teams all turned out to be not so good after all. The Huskies, as you will hear about a lot this week, hosted Florida on December 2 at Gampel Pavilion, a game they won thanks to a freakish last-second play. Shabazz Napier’s first shot attempt was so poor it hit the backboard and bounced back to him where he proceeded to drain an open jumper to hand the Gators their second loss of the season. Florida has not lost another game since then. Who had that game as a Final Four preview at the time? Nobody. Kevin Ollie’s team hosted Stanford a week before Christmas in another key non-conference game. This was a strange contest as the Huskies built a 13-point lead with 16:48 to play but could only manage an astounding eight points over the rest of the way in falling by two points to the Cardinal. Conference play saw the Huskies get off to a slow 0-2 start before returning home for a non-conference tilt against Harvard, which they won. Including the Harvard game, Connecticut won 13 of its next 15 games before a humiliating 81-48 defeat at Louisville on the final day of the regular season. The Huskies were swept by SMU and Louisville, but took two of three against Cincinnati (including a win in the AAC Tournament) and swept Memphis (three games). In the American championship game, Connecticut fell to Louisville for the third time this season. A 26-8 (12-6) record was good enough for this team to earn a #7 seed from the Selection Committee.
How They Got Here. For all intents and purposes, Connecticut should have lost to St. Joe’s in the #7/#10 game. Ken Pomeroy, in his game recap, gave the Huskies just a 16.3 percent chance of winning (down three with 49 seconds left). However, the Huskies survived and advanced thanks to tremendous rebounding and Amida Brimah’s three-point play. In fact, rebounding has been one of the main reasons why the Huskies are in this position right now. A poor rebounding team all year long has outboarded two of its four NCAA Tournament opponents and been competitive on the boards in those other games, including Sunday against fearsome Michigan State where Connecticut was +1 on the offensive glass and only -2 overall. After knocking off the Hawks, the team’s offense turned into the Napier show as he absolutely steamrolled Villanova before setting his sights on Iowa State and Michigan State in front of what was, for the most part, a jubilant home crowd at the Garden. This home court advantage undoubtedly helped the Huskies (the players admitted as much), but do not be fooled. This team is legitimate, having now taken out the #2, #3, and #4 seeds in the East Region.
Final Four History. Most people tend to forget it but Connecticut was, for the most part, a nothing program before the legendary Jim Calhoun moved to Storrs from Northeastern in 1986. The Huskies had made just three NCAA appearances, the last coming 10 years earlier in 1976. Calhoun built the program to the point where it found its way back to the NCAAs in 1990, making a run to the Elite Eight. It was not until 1999 when Connecticut made its first Final Four in program history, winning the title over Duke in a memorable championship game. The Huskies would make it back to college basketball’s biggest stage three more times, in 2004, 2009 and 2011. This year’s appearance is the fifth in school history (all within the last 15 years) and, if history is any indication, the odds of Kevin Ollie and his team cutting down the nets on Monday night are quite good. Connecticut has gone on to win the national championship in three of its previous four Final Four appearances.
Season-High Point. It is hard to argue with this past week in New York as the high point for the Huskies. They beat a talented Iowa State team and earned a hard-fought victory over a Michigan State team many had picked to blitz the East Region and go all the way to the title. The Huskies accomplished this feat in front of thousands of their fans close to home at Madison Square Garden, no less. It was a dream week in the big city for this team. In the regular season, the team’s high point had to be the early buzzer-beating victory over Florida. That put the team on the national map for good and vaulted it into the top 10 in the following week’s AP poll. It all comes full circle now with the rematch against Florida coming in front of the basketball world this Saturday night.
Season-Low Point. Without question, the worst stretch of Connecticut’s season was the two-game Texas swing to new American conference mates Houston and SMU on December 31 and January 4. The Huskies first lost to a Houston team that entered the game at just 8-5 overall with a horrific loss to San Jose State on the Cougars’ resume. Houston led by 18 points at halftime but a furious UConn run cut into that quickly. The Huskies actually grabbed a three-point lead with under two minutes to play, but ended up losing in front of a sparse crowd far, far away from home. Reality of life in the American (and not the Big East) was setting in. Connecticut followed up that embarrassing loss with a setback at SMU four days later. The loss looked worse than it actually was at the time as SMU entered the game at 10-3 (0-1) after playing one of the nation’s softest non-conference schedules and beating not a single team worth bragging about, but it turned out that the Mustangs were better than most then thought.
What’s Working. The confidence of this Connecticut team is at a season high. Ollie has talked throughout the Tournament about playing a “40-full” and it is quite obvious how his team is not taking any plays off. You can see how the team feeds off of Napier’s incredibly high level of play, which also opens up shots for others from a strategic perspective. DeAndre Daniels has been fantastic in this Tournament, averaging 17.0 points per game and providing a presence defensively and on the glass. Speaking of defense, the Huskies are among the nation’s best. This has been a strength all year and their defense now ranks #10 in adjusted efficiency heading into the Final Four. It is very difficult to score against Connecticut inside given their raw length and athleticism. Brimah has given Ollie some great minutes while players like Phillip Nolan make important contributions every now and then as well. If this team is going to go all the way, it will be on the backs of Napier, Daniels and the defense. It also helps when you are making free throws at a good clip, and Connecticut is doing just that. The Huskies make 77.4 percent of their foul shots on average and are even well above that in NCAA play (81-for-92, 88 percent).
What’s Not Working. It is hard to find something that is not working, as this team is firing on almost all cylinders right now. If there is one thing the Huskies can struggle with, it is putting the ball in the basket. By no means has that been a problem in the last two weeks, but they are not an elite offensive team when you look at their overall efficiency (#47 nationally). While Napier is fantastic, he is not the most efficient player out there. Despite cutting back in Tournament play, he remains prone to turnovers and is not a high percentage shooter. Pressuring him when he has the ball and forcing him into difficult shots, which he will take given his reputation and fearless personality, may be the best game plan for an opposing defense. Florida sports the nation’s top defense, something that will make for a very interesting test for the Huskies on Saturday.
Why Connecticut Will Win It All. It is hard to argue with history. Kevin Ollie is carrying on Jim Calhoun’s legacy of defense, toughness and closing out Final Fours with national championships. While Ollie and Calhoun are completely different people, the culture inside the program has not changed much at all. This is a group of players used to winning and they will not be intimidated by the gigantic AT&T Stadium setting or their opponent(s). While the Huskies do not have the most overall talent at this year’s Final Four, they do have the best player on the floor of any of the four remaining teams. When you have that, you always stand a chance. A realistic case can be made for any of the teams to emerge victorious, Connecticut included.
Why Connecticut Won’t Win It All. Can Napier and Daniels continue to play at such a high level? If one of them cannot, this dream Huskies’ run will end. Connecticut’s offense cannot afford a drop in production, so these two, along with Ryan Boatright, must continue to play well. While the game against Florida was a long four months ago, you can bet Billy Donovan will have his team prepared and highly motivated for the rematch. If Florida can contain Napier and render Daniels a relative non-factor, the Huskies will be headed back to Storrs on Sunday. Many people have said that Daniels is this team’s “X-factor” and it is completely true. Connecticut can beat anyone if Daniels comes to play, but if he does not, this is no more than an above-average basketball team. It is Daniels’ play that pushes Connecticut to the next level but he may have a difficult time dealing with the strong Florida front line. Should the Huskies get by Florida, an equally difficult game remains against uber-talented Kentucky or a strong Wisconsin team that features possibly the scariest match-up nightmare in the country in Frank Kaminsky.