Senior Day preview: UConn vs. Louisville

I don't really remember the 2005-06 UConn basketball team. I remember the four NCAA Tournament games, of course, as well as the Big East tournament loss and the Villanova win vividly. There are other scattered moments that I can detail (Marcus Williams taking over against Notre Dame), but otherwise, it's all sort of a blur.

The end of that epoch of UConn basketball was a strange time. UConn lost seven of its top nine players, and Jim Calhoun replaced them with an epic recruiting class of eight gentlemen: Stanley Robinson, Jerome Dyson, Hasheem Thabeet, Doug Wiggins, Curtis Kelly, Jonathan Mandeldove, Gavin Edwards and Ben Eaves. The rest of the roster was made up of mostly-untested sophomores Jeff Adrien, A.J. Price, Craig Austrie and Marcus Johnson.

This, with one notably awesome exception, is the UConn roster I associate with my years in Storrs.

So, I'm in Gampel Pavilion on Nov. 11, 2006 - probably my second or third UConn game ever - to watch the Huskies open its season against Quinnipiac. UConn jumped out to a 35-16 lead at halftime against the Bobcats, just as expected. Everything was going swimmingly.

Then it wasn't.

To say the young Huskies struggled in the second half would be an understatement akin to calling John Cahill a possibly incompetent referee. Quinnipiac pulled within two points, 48-46, with two and a half to play. I distinctly remember the crowd freaking out and wondering what the hell was going on ("WHAT IS EDWARDS DOING? HE SUCKS!"). Craig Austrie bailed UConn out with a 3-pointer 30 seconds later, and UConn held on for a 53-46 win. But Christ, was that scary.

It was an inauspicious debut for those eight freshmen, to say the least. That's not just me saying it with the benefit of hindsight - it was Coach Cal then:

"We found the enemy, identified it, and we’ll practice with them tomorrow at 9:00 o’clock."

 "We have not made any progress and I’m incredibly disappointed.  I feel like we’ve wasted 20 days.  I’m not giving up by any stretch of the imagination.  We’ll practice tomorrow for three hard hours and see if we can find somebody that’s got a little bit of basketball instinct or toughness, whatever words you want to use, to step up and play basketball."

It is hard to believe that was nearly four full seasons ago. But here we are, wrapping up the careers of Dyson, Robinson and Edwards - the only three who remain from that megaclass of eight - with today's Senior Day festivities. (Snarky response: Are you sure Calhoun didn't make those comments after the Michigan game this year?)

The seniors, just as they were four years ago, are fighting for their NCAA Tournament hopes late in February. This time, though, they're one of the hottest teams in the nation. Wins over a pair of top 10 teams have restored UConn fans' faith and swagger. Despite being 17-11, absolutely no one wants to play UConn in a do-or-die scenario. And that's a nice place to be, if you can't be uber-dominant like last year's squad.

But this is no time to rest on laurels. Today is perhaps the most important regular season game to be played in Storrs since Villanova in '06.

A win today, and UConn likely needs just one more win in their final 3-plus games to punch their dance ticket. With tricky road games at suddenly-scary Notre Dame and tricky South Florida, that's a huge load off all our minds.

But should UConn lose for just the second time at Gampel since 2005, they lose that margin for error - not to mention the season series against the Cardinals, a bubble team desperate for a win.

Let's not freak out too much or anything. Short preview is below the jump.

The game: Louisville (18-10, 9-6 Big East) at UConn (17-11, 7-8)

The place: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

The time: 2 p.m.

The media: TV: CBS; Radio: WTIC 1080-AM / WHUS 91.7 FM

The Vegas favorite: UConn, minus-4.5

Series history: UConn leads, 5-3

All but the first one (a UConn win in November 2000) have been since the Cardinals joined the Big East in 2006. Last time UofL played in Connecticut, the Huskies pulled out a gutty 69-67 win at the XL Center in January 2008.

Last meeting: Louisville 82, UConn 69 (Feb. 1, 2010 at Louisville)

This, of course, was the game that prompted us to write off the season, a move that looked great in hindsight until, oh, about three games ago.

State of the Huskies: Remember when UConn was 14-11? No? Because that was, like, two weeks ago. All has been forgiven now that UConn is playing like, well, UConn again. The Huskies have played their way into the NCAA Tournament (for now) and, in the process, reminded us all why we love these kids.

Especially Kemba Walker. Who is awesome, and possibly my (and all of ours) hero.

So, tell me a little bit about the Cardinals: You can check out their fine SBNation blog, Card Chronicle, which was one of the first blogs to notice us back in the early, early days, and thus, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for them.

Except for a couple notable missteps (a 19-point loss at St. John's???), Louisville has been very solid since a three-game losing streak in mid-January. That includes an upset of Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. But with a monstrous end-of-season stretch (Georgetown-UConn-Marquette-Syracuse), the Cards are going to probably need to win two more games to feel good about an NCAA berth.

Check out the game notes: UConn's are here, while Louisville’s are here.

Probable Louisville starters: G Jerry Smith (6'2 senior, 8.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg); G Edgar Sosa (6'2 senior, 13.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg); F Reginald Delk (6'5 senior, 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg); F Terrence Jennings (6'10 sophomore, 5.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg); C Samardo Samuels (6'9 senior, 16.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg)

Probable UConn starters: G Kemba Walker (6'0 sophomore, 14.3 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.1 rpg, 35.3 min pg); G Jerome Dyson (6'4 senior, 18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 34.2 min pg); F Stanley Robinson (6'8 senior, 15.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 34.5 min pg); F Gavin Edwards (10.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 30.4 min pg); C Alex Oriakhi (6'9 freshman, 5.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 25.7 min pg)

I'm presuming Coach Cal is going with the "start the senior on Senior Day" thing. Besides, Gav's gonna play 25-30 minutes anyway, barring foul trouble.

The preview:

The Four Factors, as always courtesy of KenPom.com:

UConn Louisville
Overall Rank 36 33
Off. Efficency 108.8 115.8
Def. Efficency 89.7 95.3
Pace 69.1 67.1
Off. EFG% 48.9 51.5
Def. EFG% 43.3 48.5
OReb% 37.4 40.3
Def. OReb% 34.7 35.0
Off. TO% 21.1 19.8
Def. TO% 18.2 22.5
Off. FT Rate 47.1 39.1
Def. FT Rate
25.6 41.4

 

The numbers say that this ought to be a good matchup for UConn as long as it can avoid Louisville's turnover-causing press and rip off some easy buckets. Also, getting to the free throw line 42 times (like they did against WVU) would be helpful.

Defensively, UConn might have to go in Harangody Mode to contain the Cards. Samuels is a beast; let him get his and try to shut everyone else down. Dyson has been outstanding on D the last few games, containing Scottie Reynolds and Desean Butler. We'll see if he can do the same against Sosa today.

All in all, these are two even teams who play different games. Whoever can force their tempo and style on the other will win.

But it's Senior Day, so we're not losing. And that's that.

The prediction:

UConn 75, Louisville 72

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