No. 1 UConn at Seton Hall preview: And then there was Craig, Vol. 37

Before we begin, I think a feel-good moment is in order in this time of mourning:

Amen.

As I'm sure you're aware, it's been about a day since the news came down from above that Jerome Dyson will no longer walk among us (without a hobble) for the next few months.

And like many of you, we here at TheUConnBlog have been going through the emotions.

First there was shock and denial: "Dyson goes to the floor wincing about three to four times a game! He can't be gone for the season! Not now!"

Then came anger and resentment: I think Meacham took care of this nicely yesterday.

Next, guilt and recrimination: "If only we had revoked Mandeldove's scholarship during the purge of '08!"

And finally, sadness and depression, which is where we find ourselves today. I saw a clip of Taliek Brown's 30-footer from the 2002 Big East Championship game on ESPNU today and proceeded to drown my sorrows in UConn highlights on YouTube for the rest of the evening.

Woe is me.

After being cautiously optimistic for the first 23 games, UConn had once again regained my trust during the Syracuse game; I had picked out the perfect couch to burn and everything.

But just when you think good finally triumphs, evil comes and tears your lateral meniscus.

The reactions across Storrs Nation have been pretty scattered: some hopeless, others upbeat, and some more rationally in between.

Although I'm over my emo phase, I also have to serve my role as a "doom-and-gloomer." The Huskies' season isn't over. It will probably be pretty successful when it's all over. But I just can't see a national title any more, not without Nate Miles, Ater Majok, Charles Okwandu AND Dyson. And considering the expectations coming into the season, that's just a bit depressing.

But (sigh) things go on, and Coach Cal decreed today how the team will handle the loss. So let's take a look at how the Huskies compensate over the next month.

Oh, and there's also a game tomorrow.

Well, the first step is a familiar one: Craig Austrie will return to the starting lineup for the 257th time.

Every season, Austrie has been undervalued and overlooked, and every season he returns to strike again like the clap. To illustrate this point, I'd like to break out my old Craig Austrie chart, which I first introduced at the beginning of the season:

  1. Craig is surpassed on the depth chart by a more talented player.
  2. Said talented player stumbles, does something stupid.
  3. Crag earns a starting role through "hustling," being the only player not to do something stupid.
  4. Craig becomes Jesus.
  5. Jesus falls from grace the next season.

Now that I think of it, we probably should have seen this one coming as soon as Austrie was taken out of the starting lineup in favor of Stanley Robinson. There's no stopping divine intervention.

Although Austrie won't be able to replicate Dyson's defense, Austrie is a capable defender on the wing and there shouldn't be a huge dropoff in this area. But there will be a few little things on the defensive end that will be missed.

Defensive rebounding will likely decline. Although Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien form one of the most imposing duos in the blocks, Dyson was third on the team in defensive rebounds while Austrie is last among the eight players that average over 10 mins. Not too damaging considering they're both guards, but still a nice advantage Dyson gave.

Probably more important, though, is that Dyson's 1.8 steals per game will be tough to make up. Again not too important, but that's about four easy points you give up, and the steals don't reflect the impact he has on shooters (kind of like Hasheem with blocks).

Offensively, though, things are a little trickier to predict. Even though Austrie has started half the games Dyson has, Dyson only averages 5.6 more minutes a game (keeping in mind that Dyson gets dinged up a lot and sits out for long periods occasionally). But in that time, Dyson has averaged 5.2 more points a game.

What complicates this problem is that both Austrie and Dyson have near identical 3-point and field goal percentages, so it's possible that Austrie can become almost as good a scorer. However, the points will come in a different way. Dyson was probably the best on the team at breaking people off the dribble (and has taken the most shots on the team), but Austrie thrives in more of a controlled setting, preferring to spot up rather than create his own shot. And as this Basketball Prospectus article Meacham brought up (read it, it's fascinating) points out, "Without Dyson, Connecticut might make a higher percentage of their shots, but they'd almost certainly take fewer shots."

People point to the 10-game winning streak UConn went on last season as evidence that Austrie can fill in (Dyson missed eight of those games and nine overall because of Cognacgate). And in some sense, that's true. But this team is much different offensively. That was a time when Price was playing out of his mind, averaging 17 points over those eight games and pretty much carrying the team to wins.

But with Price disappearing a few times this season -- like his one-point performance against West Virginia -- it's questionable whether he can have the same type of impact.

Thabeet's emergence certainly helps, but UConn will see pretty much all zone from here on out, putting more pressure on the big fella.

Benefiting the most from Dyson's absence will be Kemba SkyWalker and Stanley, according to Coach Cal:

Kemba will have the most significant rise (in playing time). Stanley, obviously, has got to do some of the things he's capable of doing -- some 18-point games, games like he had in the first half the other night ... more than the 2-point game he had at Louisville. I don't think this changes A.J., Jeff or Hasheem, given foul trouble or not."

It's possible Kemba finally has a "coming of age" -- which I pray every night for -- but he hasn't scored in double figures since Jan. 15 against St. John's. I like to base my opinion on facts and stats, but Kemba's progress from here on out depends on psychological factors. He burst on to the scene in the preseason and early in the regular, but soon faded into becoming a role player. The team plays faster with him, and with him at point and Price at the two and either Stanley or Craig on the wing, the Huskies have a pretty formidable team.

But I just don't trust Kemba yet. He's really close to challenging Boo Williams as my favorite player of all time, but I don't see his progression happening.

As far as Stanley goes ... Actually, just forget about it; Stanley's a lost cause.

And although Donnell Beverly and Scottie Haralson were supposed to take reps with the first team in practice Friday, neither will get heavy minutes against Pitt. Calhoun has already established his rotation, and Calhoun is more set in his ways than Tim Hardaway.

Haralson is the most frustrating. A mediocre prospect out of high school, he was brought in to do one thing: shoot the 3. But he can't even do that. Even though he's a guard, he must've hired the same personal trainer as the woyah, because he is the largest 6-4 guard ever. Only problem is his pythons make him as agile as a robot (and not the good ones from the Will Smith movie or anything).

The Courant's Mike Anthony notes in his blog how the team brings back virtually the same team it had last year when Dyson went down. And he's right. With Walker, they're actually a little bit better.

But you may recall that last season didn't end so well. A bunch of surfers and Jim Jones's son (no, not that one) won't upset them again with the experience they have now, but the Huskies will not make it to the Final Four.

There are far too many questions at this point. Some may not want to admit it, but that's the sobering truth you'll soon realize.

The game: No. 1 UConn (23-1, 11-1 Big East, 1st place) at unranked Seton Hall (14-9, 5-6, T-10th)

The place: The Black Pearl, Jersey

The time: Noon

The media: MyTV9, SNY (TV), 1080 WTIC, 91.7 WHUS (radio)

The Vegas favorite: UConn, minus-11

Series history: UConn has the overwhelming lead (39-18), including an eight-game winning streak.

Last meeting: UConn 76, Syracuse Seton Hall 61 (Jan. 18, 2009 at the ExtraLarge Center).

Is this school historically better than UConn at basketball? No. Although their mascot has a wonderful handlebar mustache.

Check out the game notes: here for UConn, and here for Seton Hall.

Links: No game previews because of the noon start. My 2,000-word rant should suffice, though.

Seems like both teams are taking the history angle on this one.

Seton Hall, winners of five straight coming into Saturday, has never defeated a No.1-ranked opponent in 10 tries throughout program history and the athletic dept. is promoting the game like the have a chance to change that. Awww, such a cute little middle-tier Big East team. Yes you are.

UConn, meanwhile, would tie the 1995-96 team for the school's best start with a win.

In another subplot, beloved associate head coach George Blaney was the Pirates' coach for three seasons before being run out of town and finding a spot next to Coach Cal's jewel-encrusted throne.

Jeremy Hazell, he of 23.1 ppg (second best in the conference), leads the charge for the Pirates and has been on a bit of a hot streak; he's averaged 21.2 points over the Pirates' five-game streak, including two 30-point performances. But he's also a bit of a chucker, having compiled 390 shots (190 from behind the arc), 100 more than the player in second on the team. By contrast, Dyson leads the team with 255.

Still, Hazell is fairly efficient from the field and behind the arc, where he sports percentages of 43.6 and 35.3, respectively.

Hazell scored 20 in the last meeting with the Huskies, but only one other player scored more than seven (Robert Mitchell with 19) as UConn rolled.

The big question will obviously be who guards Hazell. Austrie will likely start on him, but expect to see a rotation of Stanley, Austrie and maybe even Price used. But Coach Cal will likely use a similar strategy that he used last time -- letting Hazell get his and shutting off most of the other options. Problem is, that becomes more difficult without Dyson.

With Pitt ahead on Big Monday, this is what I can almost guarantee Calhoun called a "classic trap game," especially with Seton Hall coming in hot. However, their streak is a bit hollow, as the Pirates defeated Rutgers (15th in the Big East) twice, DePaul (16th), St. John's (14th) and a Georgetown team (T-11th) that is 3-8 since handing UConn its only loss.

Also, with the loss of Dyson, I think the upset potential lessens. The Huskies will be looking to make a statement now that Dyson is gone and should not be looking ahead to Monday. However, there is a chance that Calhoun tries to get too cute with the rotation and combinations and things fall apart.

I don't think that happens. Thabeet, who essentially started his hot streak with 15 and 17 against the Pirates in the last meeting, is too much for the Pirates, who don't have a true center on the team (6-11 Mike Davis averages 3.1 mins and is the closest they've got).

Fearless Prediction: The increased zone won't help, but I think Thabeet dominates, Austrie gives a nice 12 points or so and Stanley puts up double figures -- it's been three games since the last time, so he's right on schedule for a good performance in a meaningless game.

UConn 71, Seton Hall 59

I'd like to point out that I only made 1 1/2 pirate jokes. I know, I'm upset too.

Game time -- woot?

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