UConn has been heading in the wrong direction of late under Kevin Ollie. That shocking national title of 2014 seems a long time ago, and the Huskies had their first losing season overall in 30 years in 2017. Yet, there have been some legitimate reasons why UConn struggled and why they should be optimistic about improvement this year, mostly having to do with players returning from injuries. The Huskies showed some mettle in beating Oregon in their PK80 opener last night, in what amounted to a road win. They have one common opponent with MSU…UConn came from being down 9 with about 6 minutes to play to rally and beat Stony Brook by 8 points.
STYLE OF PLAY
On offense, UConn relies almost entirely on its guards (and they have several of them who play regularly) looking to penetrate. This has not been a good shooting team (just 29% from 3), so they look to get to the rim to score or draw fouls, where they’re averaging 24 FTA per game thus far and had 34 attempts versus Oregon. They also don’t do much in the post, so it’s pretty much down to what they do in taking defenders off the dribble in isolation.
Defensively, UConn tends to be aggressive on the perimeter and looks to create turnovers without engaging in full court pressure. Opponents have committed 58 TOs in 4 games with 30 of those coming via UConn steals. This is not the old Jim Calhoun style defense on the interior, with multiple long shotblockers making everything tough at the rim. MSU has blocked twice as many shots as have the Huskies on the season so far.
Jalen Adams is a 6’3” junior who is on the Cousy Award watchlist, given to the best point guard in college basketball annually. That gives you some indication of what kind of player he is. Adams led UConn in scoring last year at 14.4ppg and he’s up a little bit so far this year, averaging 15.7 ppg. He’s struggling from deep so far (2-13) and his assists are way down, though some of that is due to sharing the floor with other guys who end up with the ball in their hands. He’s a disruptive defender, averaging 2 steals per game so far.
Alterique Gilbert is a 6’ redshirt freshman who only managed to play in 3 games last year before a shoulder injury ended his season. He’s back and has been very impressive in the early going for the Huskies, not surprising considering Gilbert was a McDonald’s All American in high school. He’s got exceptional quickness and like UConn’s other guards, uses that to get into the lane whenever possible (he’s averaging 4 FTA/game so far, though he’s only hitting 50% so far). Gilbert has also been one of the few Huskies to shoot the 3 decently, hitting 36% from deep. He’s sharing point duties with Adams and leads the team with 14 assists…but his 8 TOs tell you that the decision making is still a work in progress for this young but gifted player.
Terry Larier is a transfer from VCU who is leading UConn in scoring in the early going at 17 ppg. The 6’8” junior is their best perimeter threat, hitting 7 of 16 attempts from 3. Larier is a long, athletic guard who is also leading the team in rebounding at 5.3/game and has been active in going to the rim as well (better than 3 FTA per game).
Another transfer, Antwoine Anderson, a grad transfer from Fordham, is playing a large role off the bench at the guard spots. Anderson leads the team in steals and is scoring 10.8 ppg while playing almost 30mpg thus far. He’s had 18 FTA in 4 games (and made them all), so he’s definitely one to watch in terms of a guard looking to get to the basket as much as possible. 6’2” soph Christian Vital is also averaging double digits off the Huskie bench. Vital has struggled to shoot well from the floor but he’s averaging 5.5 FTA per game so far, so again…dynamism from the guard spot is a key for this team and he’s yet another guy who will look to get into the lane.
Tyler Polley is a 6’8”190lbs freshman who has started all four games thus far, but he hasn’t produced a ton to date. They think he can be a versatile offensive player with enough athleticism and length to impact games inside as well but for now, he’s been limited in terms of impact in his twenty mpg.
David Onuorah is a 6’9” 250lb grad transfer from Cornell who started the game against Oregon. However, Onuorah is another low impact guy who’s there basically to provide a big body in the paint. He is averaging 5 rpg in just 14 mpg, so he can give the Huskies a presence on the boards, but his scoring average barely registers (less than 1ppg).
Eric Cobb is a 6’9” 280 lbs junior who is the other traditional big body alongside Onuorah. Cobb is also producing very limited numbers in his minutes. Don’t expect much except some space eating out of him in this game. The most productive UConn frontcourt player is 6’9” freshman Josh Carlton. Carlton has a good combination of size and athletic ability and he’s scoring 3ppg in the early going in a limited role, but he has the most upside in this group and may see an expanded role going forward as he continues to learn and mature.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Turnovers – MSU had another rough go of it in the first half against DePaul but then settled down in the second twenty. They can’t afford to have another poor performance in terms of valuing the ball, particularly the types of TOs which plagued them in the DePaul game….UConn thrives on letting its defense create transition opportunities and they will punish an MSU team being loose with the ball.
2. Post – Uconn doesn’t do much of anything via post scoring and MSU should have a big advantage in this area. It needs to be exploited. Nick Ward has to stay on the floor and avoid silly early fouls…if he does, I think the Huskies will have very little success in stopping him if they choose to play him straight up. If they double, he’s got to be more decisive and quicker with getting into a shot or moving the ball to punish it and not merely survive it.
3. Contain dribble penetration – This may be the single most important element of this game. UConn relies heavily on dribble drive action to generate points, either via scores or by drawing fouls. MSU had huge issues avoiding fouling in the DePaul game with its perimeter group. With or without Miles, that can’t happen again to the same degree. Now, some of that was due to an overly sensitive whistle, but UConn is going to look to put MSU in a position where officials will be tempted to call fouls, so somehow, the Spartans have to find a way to keep them contained and out of the lane without being overly handsy.
4. Rebounding – Who would have thought Connor George could solve a rebounding issue for MSU? Seriously, though, this is an area MSU simply must be better. UConn has boarded well despite not having much in the way of interior presence…their guards have done an outstanding job and the team is averaging about 12 ORB/game. When you’re playing a team which doesn’t shoot well, you can’t give them lots of second chances. MSU has to close out defensive possessions. Additionally, UConn’s lacking in the post area should present second chances for MSU.
5. Miles –MSU can win this game without Miles but it would be an easier task to accomplish if they’ve got him. This is the understatement of the century.