Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Preview -- Connecticut

Villanova and Connecticut meet for the 8th time in past 6 seasons on Wednesday evening in Hartford. While Villanva holds a 32-26 edge in the series, that advantage is deceiving, as over those past 6 seasons (pretty good ones for the Wildcats) the Huskies hold a 4-3 record. Both teams have an abundence of sophomores, juniors and (for Villanova anyway) seniors. These teams (and coaches) know each other, in some cases very well. Corey Stokes was down to UConn and Villanova. Corey Fisher and Kemba Walker faced each other in New York playgrounds and on the AAU circuit. Dwayne Anderson and Jeff Adrien were teammates at Thomas More Prep. 5 of the last 7 games have been decided by 5 points or less (Villanova is 3-2 in those games). This one should be close as well...

Common Opponents, Good Wins, Bad Losses...
The 'Cats and Huskies played Seton Hall & St. John's recently (within the past 2 weeks):

Seton HallW (A)OT +4W (H)+15
St. John'sW (H)+19W (A)+12

UConn's (Big East 16-1, RPI #6) good wins include a home win over Wisconsin (Big Ten, 11-5, RPI #32) and road wins over West Virginia (Big East 13-4, RPI #27), Miami (FLA) (ACC, 12-4, RPI #32) & Gonzaga (WCC, 11-4, RPI #34). UConn's only loss was at home to Georgetown (Big East, 12-4, RPI #6). Connecticut is 10-1 at home this season...

Lineups, Rotations...
...Coach Calhoun began the season with a three guard lineup that included seniors AJ Price, Craig Austrie and junior Jerome Dyson. Forward Stanley Robinson re-entered Connecticut at the end of the fall semester rejoined the team and, by-and-large, the starting lineup. Australian Atar Majok did not get his transcripts through the NCAA clearing house in time to enter the university this past fall. He is slated to join the program next fall.

Coach Calhoun will continue to pair senior AJ Price (6-2, 181lbs) with junior Jerome Dyson (6-4, 190lbs) to start the back court. As the game progresses, expect to see freshman Kemba Walker (6-1, 172lbs) and senior guard Craig Austrie (who ran the Huskies as a freshman point guard), early and often. While Dyson typically plays 30+ minutes, Price, Walker and Austrie draw nearly equal minutes. If the staff uses them interchangably, they are hardly identical parts -- Austrie will distribute the ball & shoot in about equal parts, while trying to get to the line; Walker will shoot first and distribute also in about equal parts, but plays a larger role (through ball handling?) according to Pomeroy's Poss%, all while trying to get to the lane with the reckless abandon that only an uninjured freshman displays; Price will distribute the ball and shoot even as he directs the offense.

Coach Calhoun will most likely start senior Jeff Adrien (6-7, 243lbs), and juniors Hasheem Thabeet (7-3, 263lbs) & Stanley Robinson (6-9, 210lbs) in the frontcourt. Adrien, much heralded as a freshman, but unable to carry the team as a sophomore, has found his niche over the past two seasons. He is aggressive to the ball, an efficient (though not prolific) scorer and a consistent rebounder. The star of the front court is Hasheem Thabeet from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Thabeet kicked off the season with a string of 8 double-doubles (and 3 more near double-doubles) so far this season. Robinson rejoined the team in time for the Gonzaga game. He has started the last five games. Junior Gavin Edwards (6-9, 234lbs) sees minutes in most games. When Coach Calhoun feels the need to go deeper than 8 in his rotation he will call on sophomore guard Donnell Beverly (6-4, 190lbs), freshman guard Scottie Haralson (6-4, 215lbs), or sophomore transfer center Charles Okwandu (7-1, 255lbs).

Villanova will start Scottie Reynolds in the back court, along with Dante Cunningham and Antonio Pena in the frontcourt. The 3rd front court starter will most likely be senior Dwayne Anderson. For the last back court slot, look to the staff to choose 1 of the Coreys (Fisher or Stokes) or junior Reggie Redding. Dante is scoring well, though Scottie continues to draw attention of opposing team's defense (not a bad game plan, as the Seton Hall game proved). Dwayne Anderson has rejoined the team after rehabbing earlier in the fall. Dwayne contributes points and timely rebounds. Looking beyond Coach Wright's first 7-8, senior Frank Tchuisi, Jason Colenda and Russell Wooten are available. Tchuisi and Colenda saw time versus St. John's on Sunday.

By the Numbers, Offense & Defense...
A funny thing happened to the Connecticut offense this season -- it slowed down. A lot. Connecticut historically has been one of the high-possession teams in the conference, usually getting between 69-71 possessions per (40 minute) game, good to be ranked #1/#2, or at worst #5. But always above the D1 average pace. The pace this season started off in the low 70s, as always, but declined quickly as they moved through the latter part of their OOC schedule.

When Connecticut has the ball...
Husky O54.117.939.949.4
Wildcat D44.722.429.035.0

The Wildcats find themselves up against another elite offense. Pomeroy ranks the Huskies #7 in adjusted offensive rating. These Huskies are not terribly different from any of the last 4-6 Connecticut teams -- just better at a few of Coach Calhoun's traditional points of emphasis. These guys don't turn the ball over often (ranked #33 in TO%). They prefer to shoot 2s over 3s (UConn is ranked #337 in shooting 3s), which makes sense because they are very efficient at scoring via 2FGAs (according to Ken Pomeroy's Connecticut Team Page their 2FGM% is 53.2%, ranked #32). They also hit their 3s by the way, but really don't emphasize them in the offense. But look for Price or Austrie if they are taking those 3FGAs, as those two typically take >40% of their 3FGAs from beyond the arc (Price is 59%, Austrie is 40.4%). They make their 3s the old fashioned way -- at the free throw line. And they do rely on the charity stripe for nearly 1 in 4 (23.8%) points. They get to the line on nearly 50% (49.4%) of their FGAs. The matchup under Connecticut's basket will be interesting in that it pit Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet (& Gavin Edwards when he is in...) against Villanova's Antonio Pena and Dante Cunningham. Cunningham has not drawn much attention from the zebras lately (quite unlike Pena), so UConn's proficiency at drawing fouls may well have an impact on who the 'Cats can put and keep on the floor. The "Four Factors" comparison of Villanova's offense versus Connecticut's defense:

When Villanova has the ball...
Wildcat O50.718.136.441.4
Husky D43.317.829.618.8

Statistically Villanova's and Connecticut's defense are very similar (the Huskies are ranked #18, the Wildcats are ranked #21), there are however, a few significant differences. Connecticut is defensively efficient by contesting shots (eFG%), limiting 2nd chances (OR%) and keeping their opponents from converting much from the line (FTA/FGA -- which is actually FTM/FGA). They are miserable at forcing turnovers (TO%), ranked well into the lowest part of D1 (#315) in that category. Nova can expect their shots to be blocked, but not have their passess intercepted (Stl% is 9.2, #223). Nova, by contrast, contests the shot (just not as well...), controls the defensive boards and forces turnovers (which in turn limits shots). They don't keep their opponents off the line as well as Connecticut. Connecticut's shot defense is as good as Louisville's, and their defensive rebounding is almost as good as the Wildcat's (which suggests there will be another, nearly as fierce battle, under the Villanova basket). Like Connecticut, Villanova likes to get to the line, which Connecticut is pretty good at denying. Which should make for another interesting battle. Of the two teams, Nova by and large is the better free throw shooting team. If both sides get to the line an equal number of times (based on the past 2 games played at Connecticut, very unlikely), then the advantage should go to Nova.

Want to Beat the Huskies? Then...
The game plan for each team is hardly a secret...
1. Contest the shot -- Identified by Ken Pomeroy's Game Plan Page, the Huskies need to hit a high percentage of their FGAs. This is especially true given their reliance on the 2FGA ("and one"...). UConn had an eFG% of 48.0 in their loss to Georgetown. When Nova has been able to limit opponents to an eFG% of <50.0 they have gone 10-2.
2. Force turnovers -- The Hoyas were able to force the Huskies into a turnover rate of 27.2, the second worst TO% for UConn this season (the worst was vs West Virginia, a 61-55 win). Forcing turnovers is a defensive strength for Villanova. Something to watch for in this game.
3. Hit your own shots -- When Nova converts they tend to win. When their opponents convert it puts more pressure on UConn to convert. Georgetown's eFG% was 52.8; when their opponents convert (eFG%) at 52.0 or higher the Huskies are 4-1. When the Wildcats convert (eFG%) convert at a 50.0 rate or higher they are 8-0.

...I don't expect too many surprises in this game (and neither should the two teams) -- after all, the players and staff, with the exception of Kemba Walker and Scottie Haralson, have faced off at least once, and for most players/coaches twice before. The 'Cats tend to be able to disrupt the Huskies' communication, clog their passing lanes and contest their low post entry passes, while the Huskies tend to shut down the lane and force the 'Cats to shoot j's (which they block seemingly without physical contact). If Nova's thin(ner) front court has to spend time on the bench (fouls) then UConn will overpower the low post and score easily. And roll. If the Wildcats can disrupt the Huskies' offense, control their defensive boards and hit enough of their shots, inside and outside (oh, and get to the line themselves...) it will be close. Each side knows what they need to prevent and what they need to do. The outcome will hang on how well they are able to do it.

Pomeroy projects the game will be played for 65 possessions (well within each team's comfort zone), with the Huskies taking a 7 point decision.

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