Jeff Capel had it working in Norman. Building off the success of his predecessor Kelvin Sampson, Capel took the Sooners to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in 2007 and 2008. Heading into practice, the 2008-09 season had all the makings of a season to remember. The Sooners boasted the future #1 pick of next year’s NBA Draft coupled with Willie Warren, a McDonald’s All-American from Dallas, not to mention the return of veteran contributors Taylor Griffin and Tony Crocker. They won 30 games that year before eventually losing in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Since 2009? Nothing.
For the first time since this guy suited up, the Sooners are dancing. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
But it was only a matter of time before a program like Oklahoma would rise again. Lon Kruger, known as a fixer of ailing programs, has the Sooners dancing in just his second season in Norman. As the Sooners hovered around the middle of the Big 12 this year, they were searching for a leader and found it in senior Romero Osby, He’s playing the best basketball of his career, and I believe that had he not made the step from role player to lead, the Sooners may have been on the outside looking in with this Tournament. After struggling to start the year, another senior, Stephen Pledger, has turned it on as well. Oklahoma finds itself as the #10 seed in the South Region paired with #7 seed San Diego State. As a result, OU can conceivably win its first foray back into the Madness since those Griffin brothers were still wearing red uniforms together.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
It started out way back when with three teams – UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico – the teams expected to compete for the conference title. It quickly became apparent that Colorado State deserved to be among that group as well, while a few other teams – Wyoming, Boise State and even Air Force – had their moments in the sun. At one point or another in the season, seven different Mountain West teams could have reasonably dreamed of NCAA Tournament bids to come. And now, with a week remaining in conference play, many of our questions have been answered. New Mexico’s the conference champ, there will be at least four teams dancing (and probably a fifth), and it will be a disappointment if the conference doesn’t advance at least one team to the Sweet Sixteen. All told, it is without a doubt the deepest this conference has ever been. It may not have the elite teams that the conference had in 2011 when both San Diego State and BYU advanced to the Sweet Sixteen (and each were just a shot away from the Elite Eight), but there is still a strong opportunity for one of these teams to make a big run over the next month.
Team of the Week
Boise State – While it was New Mexico that clinched the conference title outright this week, we’re going to give the nod to the Broncos, a team that went a long way towards securing an invitation to the Big Dance with wins over Nevada and Colorado State. Boise clamped down defensively this week and got big scoring outputs from Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks to ensure themselves a .500 conference record. They’d still be wise not to let up quite yet, but Leon Rice’s club has put itself in good position to earn just its sixth NCAA Tournament invitation in its history.
Derrick Marks Exploded Against Colorado State For One Of The Year’s Best Offensive Displays
Player of the Week
Derrick Marks, Sophomore, Boise State – Way back in late November, Marks scored 18 straight points for his team in the second half of an upset at Creighton. This past week, with his team in need of another big win, Marks again went nuts in the second half, scoring 24 in a row for the Broncos and making all 11 of his shots from the field on his way to a career high 38 points in a big win over Colorado State. For the week, Marks averaged 22 points, six rebounds, 5.5 assists per game and shot a 68% eFG.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference.
As we look forward to the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas in just three weeks from now, we can also begin to look forward to future MW tourneys there, as this past week the conference announced that it approved a deal to keep the conference tourney in the Thomas & Mack Center for at least three more years after this March. And while the conference, fans, and media are all pleased, there are plenty of Mountain West coaches who, though unsurprised, are not happy with this arrangement. Steve Alford and Larry Shyatt are just two of the coaches who have gone on record opposing having to play for the league’s automatic bid on the home court of league rival UNLV, but with the MW Tourney having previously flopped in Denver and now an unmitigated success in Las Vegas (for example, this year the conference reports record ticket sales), odds are strong that the tournament location won’t be changing anytime soon.
The Thomas & Mack Center Will Be The Home Of The Mountain West Tournament For The Foreseeable Future (AP)
As for this year’s tourney, now that we finally have some separation at the top of the conference, it looks like a two team race for the #1 seed in Vegas come March. With San Diego State dropping a pair of games and UNLV getting bitten by Air Force on the road, New Mexico and Colorado State now sit atop the conference standings, three games in the loss column ahead of UNLV, SDSU and Air Force. While this weekend’s game between those two at Fort Collins will go a long way towards determining that winner, we’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams got a big final minute from Dorian Green on Wednesday night to knock off San Diego State in Fort Collins, then went on the road Saturday and held on for a rare road win over Air Force. Larry Eustachy’s bunch is still making its hay by dominating teams on the glass; they haven’t had an offensive rebound percentage lower than 35% since January 2, and they’re regularly turning those second chance opportunities into points, putting the Rams in the top 10 nationally in offensive efficiency. And yet, despite perhaps the best rebounding team in memory, a rotation loaded with experienced seniors, and a six-game winning streak (as well as 27 home wins in a row), for some reason people are still a little leery about this team. Nevertheless, if they can extend that home winning streak to 28 on Saturday night against New Mexico, regardless of what happens tomorrow night at UNLV, the Rams should be the conference favorite.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West conference.
A Look Back
Mountain West teams have been involved in three high profile events thus far this season – the San Diego State/Syracuse aircraft carrier debacle, the New Mexico win at the Paradise Jam, and UNLV hosting Oregon, Cincinnati and Iowa State at the Global Sports Classic. In two of those three events, the MW team went home with a loss. So, here we are getting ready to head into December and the only two MW wins over teams in Ken Pomeroy’s present top 50 are UNLV’s win over Iowa State (#48) and UNM’s win over Connecticut (#49). Now, there are still some chances out there, but as of right now, there ain’t a whole lot of meat on the bones for the conference’s overall resume. I’m sure the same can be said at plenty of places around the country, but MW fans have sure got to be rooting for SDSU to take care of business against UCLA, and for teams like Boise State and Air Force to fare well against Creighton and Wichita State, respectively, this week as the meat of the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Conference Challenge takes place.
Team of the Week
Colorado State – The Rams get the nod on the strength of a pair of decent road wins, at Denver and at Washington, followed up by a win last night back in the cozy confines of Moby Arena over Northern Colorado. None of those count as spectacular wins, but the impressive thing is that CSU seems to go about winning their games in a different, and possibly more sustainable fashion this year than they did last year. Last year it was a perimeter-oriented attack with guys like Wes Eikmeier and Dorian Green using the majority of possessions, en route to a offense-first, defense-when-we-get-around-to-it style. This year, though the offense is still quite efficient, the defense is much improved. And the particulars are drastically different. For example, last year, in part due to the seventh-smallest lineup in the nation, the team eschewed rebounding and focused on working their way to a good first shot. This year, they’re third in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and second in defensive rebounding percentage. Don’t expect those lofty rankings to hold – the competition will get better, especially come conference play – but it seems clear that Larry Eustachy is taking a much different approach to the Rams than the previous coach, Tim Miles, did. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but different. More down the page a bit. Read the rest of this entry »
Brendon Mulvihill is the head curator for @SportsGawker and an RTC contributor. You can find him @themulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
The college basketball season is finally here! This season Set Your DVR (ed. note: sadly, nobody has TiVos anymore) will be a twice-weekly column outlining the must-see games for the upcoming week and weekend. This column will lay out the key factors in each game to focus on and how those factors could affect the outcome. It’s a military-themed weekend of hoops with three games taking place on aircraft carriers and one game taking place at a military base located across the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s get to the breakdowns.
Game of the Weekend
#16 San Diego State vs. #5 Syracuse – 4:00 PM EST, 11/11/12 on FSN HD (*****)
Jim Boeheim takes the Orange to the USS Midway to take on San Diego State
The USS Midway provides the backdrop for an exciting opener between Syracuse and San Diego State. SDSU returns four starters including Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Jamaal Franklin as well as Chase Tapley, James Rahon, and Xavier Thomas. Keep a close eye on the match-up between the Aztec guards and Syracuse point guard Brandon Triche. Triche is taking over for Scoop Jardine and faces a tough test against this crew. Steve Fisher’s squad will have to improve in two areas if they are going to start beating top-tier programs like Syracuse – shooting and offensive rebounding. The Aztecs grabbed only 30.8% of their offensive rebound opportunities last season, so if they are only going to hit 33% of their three-point attempts and 49.8% of their two-point attempts like they did in 2011-12, it’s going to be difficult to beat the best teams in the country. Watch to see if transfers Dwayne Polee II and J.J. O’Brien can help the Aztecs grab more of those missed shots.
After losing four starters to graduation and the NBA Draft, Syracuse is in a much different place than SDSU. Jim Boeheim’s ability to fill the talent void will be a key factor in determining if this Orange team can beat an experienced Aztec team. The ‘Cuse returns two significant contributors from last year’s team – C.J. Fair and Triche. Both players need to improve their sub-50% eFG in order to prevent the team from taking a step backwards. The key to the Orange’s success in this game and in the future, however, may be 6’8” senior forward James Southerland. In a somewhat limited role last year, Southerland put up some impressive shooting numbers from inside the arc. Keep a close eye on Southerland’s ability to take advantage of his size inside the three-point line. Syracuse will also be able to throw additional size at the Aztecs with 6’9” sophomore Rakeem Christmas, 6’10” junior Baye Keita, and 6’7” 275 lb. wide-body freshman, DaJuan Coleman. Read the rest of this entry »
Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the Mountain West.
Drew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West Conference. You can also find his musings on Twitter @amurawa.
Three Summer Storylines
Tectonic Movement Continues. For the second straight year, the landscape of the MW shifts. Last year it was BYU and Utah heading off to greener pastures with Boise State landing in their place. This year TCU is on its way out the door with Fresno State and Nevada on their way in. And next year Boise State and San Diego State will depart with San Jose State and Utah State coming in. All in all, this will still be a good basketball conference even after all these moving parts settle, but the loss of a rapidly improving Aztec program will be tough for MW fans to take. TCU and Boise State certainly aren’t major losses on the basketball side, but the strength of their football programs could have provided stability for the conference and the potential for improved programs on the hardwood. Between the four newcomers, each of Fresno State, Nevada and Utah State have had good runs over the course of a handful of years, but they’ll all need to prove their ability to compete with more established programs like UNLV and New Mexico, while SJSU figures to step directly into the basement of the conference.
The Mtn. Crumbles. On May 31, The Mtn., the Mountain West’s television network, went dark, ceasing all operations after six years. Now, say what you will about the network, a channel that eschewed HD programming, struggled with distribution and had issues with their on-air talent, but the shuttering of its doors leaves some questions for MW hoops fans. In the era of The Mtn., if you wanted to follow MW hoops, it was easy to do so. Now, it remains to be seen exactly how much exposure teams from this conference will get during the year. Sure, the MW still has deals in place to get games shown on NBC Sports Network and CBS Sports Network, but what about that Air Force/Boise State game on some random February Wednesday? Should you want to watch that game and you’re not in Idaho or Colorado, odds are pretty good you’re going to be out of luck.
Continued Success? For all the uncertainty about the membership of the conference, the last three years have been something of the golden age of Mountain West basketball. In the past three seasons, the MW has received 11 NCAA Tournament berths. Two years ago there were dual Sweet Sixteen appearances by BYU and SDSU. We’ve had Jimmer and Kawhi grab national headlines, while other guys like Dairese Gary and Darington Hobson, Billy White and Drew Gordon, D.J. Gay and Hank Thorns, Andy Ogide and Malcolm Thomas have kept us all entertained. But, even with all of those players now gone, there is still plenty to be excited about in the conference. San Diego State and UNLV lead the way again, with both expected to start the season in the preseason Top 25. New Mexico and Colorado State, who joined the Aztecs and Rebels in the Big Dance last year, both should be in the hunt for another tourney bid, while Nevada could be a sleeper in its first season in the conference. And, as always, we could be in for another surprise or two.
Saturday night’s Mountain West Championship game between San Diego State and New Mexico provided plenty of great storylines: the two regular season co-champions meeting in a rubber match; the two-time defending tournament champion Aztecs against a Lobo team that hadn’t won this tournament since 2005, when Ritchie McKay was still the head coach; and the battle between the top two candidates for the conference Player of the Year, the winner, Jamaal Franklin and the jilted, Drew Gordon.
Gordon had made no bones about the fact all week that he felt he deserved the individual honor and that other awards, such as Defensive Player of the Year and Sixth-Man of the Year, should have wound up in Lobo hands, and he played with a chip on his shoulder all weekend, averaging 15.3 points and 10.7 boards in the tournament on his way to the Most Outstanding Player award. But the win on Saturday night was a total team affair. Tony Snell got things off on the right track, scoring the first five points of the game and turning in his third straight double-digit scoring game after slumping through February. Freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood continued his do-whatever-it-takes style and contributed ten boards and a couple threes. And bench players Phillip McDonald, Demetrius Walker, and Cameron Bairstow all made major contributions. McDonald, who has lost minutes this season as Snell and Walker have stepped up, came off the pine and had a three, an assist, a rebound and drew a charge, all in his first couple minutes of action. Bairstow battled on the boards and at one point scored six straight points for the Lobos. And Walker, despite not making a field goal, provided energy and hit clutch free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.
Drew Gordon, The Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Is Mobbed By New Mexico Fans
But more than anything else, this win was about the New Mexico defense. They held San Diego State to 0.86 points per possession (the number was quite a bit lower than that until Chase Tapley went nuts late) and at times in the second half just completely froze the Aztecs out in the paint. Kendall Williams took San Diego State point Xavier Thames completely out of rhythm and Snell helped frustrate James Rahon into an 0-for-8 shooting night. Franklin, meanwhile, was hounded into six-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. And, despite wrapping up their semifinal game late in the evening on Friday night, the Lobos never showed fatigue and kept competing (and hard) right to the final whistle. They were consistently first to loose balls and always scrapping and making multiple attempts at rebounds.
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
When you lose four starters, 73% of your scoring production, and one NBA lottery pick from the season before, it usually means that a year of rebuilding awaits your basketball program. But for San Diego State, a fresh slate of players who mainly watched and waited their turns last season have picked up where Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay, Billy White, and Malcolm Thomas left off. Tuesday night’s road victory over Wyoming improved No. 15 SDSU to 18-2 on the season and 3-0 in Mountain West conference play as one of the most surprising teams in the country. Veteran coach Steve Fisher and the new-look Aztecs have wildly exceeded expectations and are looking to match or surpass last season’s run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Steve Fisher is Leading This Year's Aztecs to Unexpected Success (Getty Images/K. Horner)
Junior guards Chase Tapley and James Rahon are the only current Aztecs who played significant minutes on last year’s outstanding 34-3 team that won the MWC and advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual National Champion UConn Huskies. Tapley was a starter and averaged 8.6 PPG a year ago, but this season has taken his game to a whole new level. The shooting guard leads the Mountain West in scoring (16.4 PPG) and steals (2.05 SPG) while hitting a tremendous 46.7% from behind the arc on over five attempts per game. His growth from role player to star guard, however, is not even the biggest improvement on the team. That distinction goes to sophomore Jamaal Franklin, who hardly rose off the bench last season (8.1 MPG), but who’s now developed into one of the most talented players in the conference. He didn’t start the first 10 games of this season, but Fisher has had him in the lineup in the past 10 after he flashed tremendous skills and strength at the small forward position. He’s now averaging 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game as a versatile threat for the Aztecs.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
Coming into the week, three Mountain West teams appeared in the RTC Top 25, but it was New Mexico, who was ranked #25, that had the biggest chance to make a splash, getting a crack at the other two teams: San Diego State at home and UNLV on the road. Following an 0-2 week, however, there are more questions than answers in Albuquerque, as the once impressive Lobo defense took a huge step back, allowing 1.25 points per possession in their two games this week.
In the wake of UNM’s failures, for the time being, it is a two-team race at the top, with San Diego State holding a slim edge on UNLV based on their home win over the Rebels in the conference opener. But, with both teams firmly in the top 25, the Aztecs and the Rebels look like sure bets to go dancing come March.
Back of the lead pack, we have Wyoming and Colorado State each sitting at 2-1 after the Cowboys handing the Rams their first conference loss in their first conference road game. Air Force and TCU each sit at 1-2, while Boise State has settled into the role of basement dweller.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – In order for one team to separate itself from the pack atop the conference, contenders for the conference title needed to be able to defend their home court and steal a win on the road against the other contenders. So far, Steve Fisher and the Aztecs are off to a great start. Not only did they open the conference season with a home win over UNLV and follow that up this Saturday with a workmanlike win over Air Force, they bisected those wins with an impressive road win at New Mexico, an outcome that not only served to improve the Aztecs to 3-0, but to kick the Lobos down a notch. Enough cannot be said about the job that Fisher has done with not only this program, but this specific team.
After losing the bulk of last year’s record-setting team, this year’s Aztecs haven’t slowed down, as junior guard Chase Tapley has taken the leap from role player to lead guard, Jamaal Franklin has emerged as a star in the making after playing a bit part last year and Xavier Thames came back from his transfer year in exile to prove his tremendous abilities. Throw in gritty contributions from guys like Tim Shelton (he of the five knee surgeries), DeShawn Stephens (playing just his third season of organized basketball), Garrett Green (a graduate transfer from LSU) and James Rahon (who struggled early with a lingering ankle injury and is just now hitting with consistency), and Fisher’s got a good thing going down on Montezuma Mesa.
Player and Newcomer of the Week
Leonard Washington Was A One-Man Wrecking Crew On The Glass For Wyoming This Week (photo credit: Andy Carpenean/WyoSports)
Leonard Washington, Jr., Wyoming – With apologies to UNLV’s Anthony Marshall, who also just killed it this week, we’ve got to give this one to Washington, who was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cowboys last weekend. Things started out innocently enough on Wednesday night, when Washington had 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a road win at Air Force, but digging a little bit deeper into those numbers showed a sign of things to come, as Washington alone grabbed 46.4% of all the potential Cowboy defensive rebounds. Saturday night against an undersized Colorado State team, Washington upped that number to 55.9% and added a personal 22.3% offensive rebound percentage – a number some entire teams in the league would consider a fine effort. Washington wound up with 32 points and 14 rebounds (both career highs) in a performance dominant enough to allow us to completely forget about the two banked-in threes near the end of the Cowboys’ 19-point win.
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
There are lots of good conference matchups tonight across the country. We will give you full breakdowns of the two best games to watch, including a big-time Big East matchup early in the evening. Check the comments section for other games to track tonight!
Cincinnati at #12 Connecticut – 7:00 PM ET on ESPN2 (****)
Yancy Gates and UC Are Trending Up, Up, Up (AP)
Cincinnati is an impressive 4-1 in true road games this season, including victories at Georgia, Pittsburgh, and Georgetown. They have played at an increasingly high level and are 9-1 since the brawl against Xavier that left several players suspended. At full strength now, the Bearcats will not be intimidated in Gampel Pavilion and will look to establish their physical defense early in the game. Mick Cronin’s team gives up just 58.8 points per game on the season and is strong with the ball, averaging a +5.5 in turnover margin. On the offensive end, Sean Kilpatrick has developed into a true scorer this season (16.2 PPG) and will look to establish an inside-out game with Yancy Gates (12.3 PPG, 8.9 RPG) to put the UConn defense in a difficult position. Establishing their brand of physical game early on will give Cincinnati a chance to win another big road game.
UConn has had their ups and downs this season, though the Huskies are still undefeated at home and have perhaps the most talented roster in the Big East. It’s looking like Ryan Boatright will not be available tonight as he’s being investigated by the NCAA, which could be a significant blow to the Huskies’ offense. The freshman, averaging about 10 points, three rebounds, and three assists per game, is adept at creating his own shot, but then again UConn has been dealing with suspensions and off-court issues all season and should be fine without him. Stud big man Andre Drummond continues to improve and gain confidence, averaging 15 points, 12 boards, and 2.5 blocks in his previous two games. Going inside early and often has been working for the Huskies, allowing Jeremy Lamb (17.9 PPG) to create his own shot without the defense keyed in on him all the time. Allowing just 36.8% field goal shooting in conference, UConn can match the defensive brand of basketball that Cincinnati brings to this game.
There are some great matchups to watch in this game, including Kilpatrick vs. Lamb on the wing as explosive scorers and Gates vs. Drummond inside as a clash of interior styles. Who wins tonight could come down to who is making the most shots, which seems obvious, but really applies here between two teams with similar physical defenses and offensive playmakers. Give Connecticut the advantage at home.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Mountain West and Pac-12 conferences.
A Look Back
At long last, Mountain West conference play is finally here. And after the long wait, the opening weekend did not disappoint in the least.
The conference opener between San Diego State and UNLV was the sole matchup between ranked teams across the nation on Saturday, and it was everything that could be expected of it and more. But, we’ll get to that shortly.
Jamaal Franklin Was Outstandings Against UNLV (AP)
Elsewhere around the league, Colorado State knocked off TCU in a wild double overtime affair in Fort Collins, while New Mexico and Air Force came up with impressive road wins over Wyoming and Boise State, respectively. While those later two games may not have been all that competitive down the stretch, after one weekend we’re even more sure of the idea that this is going to be a fun season to watch in the MW. Not only do the three teams at the top – San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV – figure to be in for a stirring battle for the top spot in the league, but the five other teams in the conference feature good athletes, fun styles and some very solid teams. In past years, let’s be honest, there were teams in this conference that were almost unbearable to watch (Wyoming the last couple of years, TCU last season, Air Force a couple years back, even Utah last year). This year, I fully expect to be able to tune into any single Mountain West game on the schedule and be thoroughly entertained. Stay tuned, this is going to get fun.
Team of the Week
San Diego State – All of the winners this week deserve a mention here, what with New Mexico going on the road and getting past a game Wyoming team, Air Force handling Boise State in their opener despite still playing without their best player – Michael Lyons – down with an ankle injury, and Colorado State fighting through a blown lead late and a couple nail-biting overtimes to finally dispense with TCU. But, we’ve got to give the Aztecs this recognition this week if for no other reason than as a welcome back to the land of the living. You see, since December 4, SDSU has been stuck playing teams like Elon, Redlands, San Diego Christian and, most recently, coming back from a seven-point second-half deficit to winless Chicago State. But, after being off the radar for about a month and a half, Steve Fisher’s club came back to their first game against significant competition without missing a beat. Jamaal Franklin continued his breakout sophomore season with arguably his most important performance of his career, James Rahon broke out of his season-long slow-down with a sparkling 22-point performance, the backcourt of Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley fought the tough and athletic UNLV backcourt to a draw, and even Tim Shelton made significant contributions above and beyond what his relatively tame stat line would indicate. In short, if you had forgotten the Aztecs in recent months, you can hardly be blamed, but now it is time to make sure this team is on your radar again.
Brian Otskey is the Big East correspondent for RTC and a regular contributor. You can find him @botskey on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
A couple of Mountain West battles highlight Saturday’s action but the big one is late Sunday afternoon in the Big Ten.
#14 Connecticut @ Notre Dame – 11:00 AM EST Saturday on ESPN2 (***)
Led by Andre Drummond’s 20/11 on 9-11 FG, Connecticut got back on track by defeating West Virginia on Monday night. To win on the road, the Huskies will need quality efforts from most of their roster. That starts with Shabazz Napier protecting the basketball. Jim Calhoun’s sophomore point guard sets the tone for this team, good or bad. Napier (and UConn as a whole) has struggled with turnovers, especially in Big East play. On the road against a team looking to make its mark in the middle of the conference, the Huskies have to do a better job handing the ball if they are to win this one. The more possessions UConn can earn by using its strong rebounding advantage while minimizing turnovers, the more opportunities there will be for talented players such as Drummond, Jeremy Lamb (25 points vs. WVU) and Ryan Boatright to score.
Can Napier Step Up To Lead The Huskies?
Believe it or not, Notre Dame actually has an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament. 37 at-large bids have to come from somewhere and the Fighting Irish are on the bubble according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. This will be a tall order for Notre Dame, even at home. The Irish have won 29 consecutive home games but that will be tested mightily against the Huskies. The emergence of Jack Cooley in the paint could be the biggest reason why Notre Dame has a chance to upset UConn. Cooley has averaged 16.5 PPG and 9.7 RPG over his last eight games, the latest Notre Dame big man to develop nicely under Mike Brey. However, Cooley will likely have a more difficult time against Connecticut’s stifling interior defense. The Huskies have always owned the paint under Calhoun and this year is no different. Notre Dame has to make outside shots in order to win because it can’t count on Cooley alone inside. Jerian Grant has turned into a consistent scorer but the Irish need a third option. Brey had hoped Scott Martin would be that guy but he has really struggled. However, Martin is impacting the game in other ways, rebounding well even when the shots aren’t falling. Notre Dame must try to get to the foul line as well. UConn historically doesn’t foul often so this could be difficult even at home.
If Drummond plays like he did against West Virginia, the Huskies will be a strong favorite. UConn must rebound aggressively to counteract any turnover problems it may have. The Irish have struggled shooting the three ball this year and Connecticut ranks second in interior defense. If those statistics hold true, Notre Dame will have an incredibly difficult time scoring. The good news for the Irish? They have been the best team defending the triple in Big East play (20.9%). For UConn, it’s simple. Protect the ball, rebound, and defend the paint. If the Huskies do that, they will snap ND’s 29-game home winning streak. Easier said than done, of course.