SCOUTING THE HUSKIES
UConn is coming off a loss to Rutgers on Saturday -- the latest in a round of "upsets" that serve to define the two-month Big East conference season. That setback shouldn't be viewed as indicative of any sort of weakness on the part of the Huskies, however, who have talent across the board with which to defend their national title.
In the backcourt, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier combine to give the Huskies the top duo in the conference. Lamb, a 6-5 senior, pours in 18 points per game, while Napier, a 6-1 sophomore, combines playmaking duties with scoring, averaging 14.7 points and more than six assists per game. That's just the start of what each brings to the table, however. Both are good on the boards, averaging four each per contest. Both are deadly three-point threats, combining to make 91 treys to date. They are UConn's top defenders, with 27 and 28 steals, respectively. And both are excellent in pushing the ball upcourt for early shot chances -- a staple of head coach Jim Calhoun's system.
Point guard Ryan Boatright and swingman Niels Giffey get the remaining backcourt minutes, with Giffey and Lamb occasionally playing forward spots. Boatright, a freshman who originally committed to West Virginia, has immediately established himself as a scoring threat, putting up 10 points per game while approaching a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ration. Giffey, who got a start in UConn's loss to Rutgers, averages 2.9 points per game.
Alex Oriakhi, DeAndre Daniels and Andre Drummond lead a deep, talented and interchangeable front line that comes at opponents in waves. Drummond, a freshman center, averages 9.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and leads the team with 40 blocked shots. Oriakhi tosses in 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, while Daniels chips in with 4.9 points and 3.2 boards. Backups Tyler Olander (6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds), and Roscoe Smith (3.5 and 3.1) provide quality support.
The strength of the front line comes in the fact that all five are big men are productive. There aren't any "minutes-eaters" -- guys that are just on the court to play defense and hold the fort while scorers and rebounders get a rest. That gives the Huskies a huge advantage -- defenses can't take a break at any point, and it's difficult to single out one player for extra attention. Drummond is an obvious target, but teams that only focus on him on the front line are going to get burned by his teammates.
It's tough to find a weakness when examining UConn. The Huskies shoot well, defend even better and pound the boards. They reject shots (111 on the year), force tempo and play a nine-man rotation that doesn't differ greatly from top to bottom in terms of talent and productivity. In all, they look much more like a Top Ten team that West Virginia's last foe.
The spotlight will be in the backcourt when the Mountaineers take the floor -- can WVU's three guards stay with UConn's Lamb and Napier?
Defensively, those question marks loom large. Jabarie Hinds, despite his great quickness, has had trouble staying in front of foes who drive the ball and put pressure on the basket. Gary Browne and Truck Bryant have been inconsistent in that play phase, but they will have to be at their best if the Mountaineers are to hang with the Huskies on their home court. Aaron Brown may be called on for more defensive duty, given the size of Lamb and Giffey, but will also have to be productive on the offensive end as well.
WVU 12-4, 3-1
UConn 12-3, 2-2
WVU - 14
UConn - 7
More defensive mismatches await inside. Hobbled Deniz Kilicli (hip, ankle) will have to battle Drummond and Oriakhi with only Kevin Jones to help him inside with strength. Keaton Miles and Kevin Noreen have both been overpowered on defense on the blocks, and haven't been able to keep opponents from outmuscling them when they get the ball in close. They can't look for much double team help from the perimeter, either, as the guards will have their hands full with Lamb and Napier on the perimeter. In all, it's going to be one of West Virginia's most difficult defensive assignments of the season.
To combat this, WVU simply must be more efficient on the offensive end of the floor. The Mountaineers have been plagued by empty possessions this year, with 239 turnovers creating way too many missed chances for Bob Huggins' liking. If WVU can limit its turnovers (a good goal would be around 12), it will have a much better chance to win than if it gives the ball away 17 or 18 times.
WVU will also have to be very conscious of getting back on defense. UConn gets the ball into transition better than almost any other team in the country, and creates good shots by moving the ball downcourt quickly before the defense can set up. While getting back on defense has been one of the many lessons West Virginia's newcomers have learned this year, they haven't seen anything like the pace at which the Huskies move.
UConn's back-to-back losses to Seton Hall and Rutgers were fueled by poor shooting. The Huskies made just 35% of their tries against the Pirates and 37% against the Scarlet Knights. That compares unfavorably to their 47.8% mark from the floor overall this year.
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The game will feature a battle between two of the top offensive rebounders in the country. West Virginia's Kevin Jones leads the nation with 74, while UConnn's Andre Drummond has 50.
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UConn plays ten of its 17 home games at the XL Center in Hartford this year. The WVU game is the seventh of that number, with Notre Dame, Seton Hall and Marquette remaining on the schedule. UConn is 6-0 so far at the venue this season.
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Truck Bryant is nine made free throws short of the 400 mark in his career. He has 391 makes, putting him eighth on WVU's all-time list. Next up is Mark Workman, who has 393, and Rod Thorn, with 401. Bryant has a realistic shot at third place on the list, currently held by Greg Jones with 459. Jerry West (623) and Rod Hundley (610) are far out of reach.