DOG FIGHT: A UConn-Northeastern preview

Ah, the NIT. It was the NCAA Tournament before the NCAA Tournament was cool. Back in the 1950's, the coolest things you could do were to a) ask out Nancy Johnson at the neighborhood sockhop and b) win the NIT.

Nowadays, of course, the NIT is an afterthought, and rightly so. The NCAA Tournament is the only real goal for most major-conference teams. For a team like UConn to drop so far is, frankly, a failure.

Nevertheless, this is not the end of the world. Sure, enemy fans will use this to taunt UConn fans with until we're good again. But so long as a NIT trip is a once-in-a-while thing, and UConn's program doesn't pull a Syracuse and miss out on the NCAAs twice in a row, I can deal with this. In Cal We Trust.

Thus, there are at least three reasons I can think of why UConn players and fans should give a crap. That, plus your full game preview for tonight's NIT first-round game against Northeastern, is below the jump.

First of all, as alluded to above, the NIT is a nice bit of college basketball history. It's mostly an anachronism now (and it will be swallowed up by the NCAA's money-grabbing expansion when it happens), but the chance to win the oldest postseason NCAA championship in the World's Most Famous Arena is kind of a cool idea. Not nearly 1/8th as cool as getting to the Final Four was last season, but not bad since there's nothing better to shoot for.

Second of all, the NIT will allow UConn to wean itself off the Robinson-Dyson-Edwards chemistry nightmare that, I think, has plagued them all season. We'll get to see what the kids and Kemba can do (hopefully) for most of tonight's game. There is some serious Ewing Theory potential with Dyson in particular...UConn played very well coming from behind against USF and St. John's with the senior on the bench. For that reason, I'm a little less worried about next year than I was beforehand.

Finally, there is at least a little bit of evidence that NIT success has a rough correlation with future success. Three of the four semifinalists in last year's tournament are in the Dance this year (Notre Dame, Baylor, San Diego State); three more of the final eight (St. Mary's, Kentucky, Florida) also made it to the big-boys table. Teams like Memphis (2005), Louisville (2006) West Virginia (2007), and Ohio State (2008) have turned NIT semifinal runs into Final Four contenders within the following two years.

I like to think that UConn is much more like that group of teams than they are the flash-in-the-pan semifinalists like Penn State, UMass and Air Force, who have all basically been awful since making their run to NYC.

Nothing is guaranteed. But if UConn can show a little promise with the kids in this tournament, and then get its act together on the recruiting trail this spring, I see no reason why Coach Cal can't be back to his world-conquering ways as soon as next winter.

The game: [5] Northeastern (20-12) at [4] UConn (17-15), NIT First Round

The place: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

The time:7 p.m.

The media: TV- ESPN2; RADIO-WTIC 1080-AM, WHUS 91.7-FM

The Vegas favorite: UConn, by 7.5

Series history: UConn leads, 34-4

Man, how bad have you historically been if you couldn't beat UConn in the 30's and 40's, when the school was a glorified farming community?

Northeastern hasn't beaten UConn since December 1985 at the Civic Center. Six months later, Northeastern's coach/certified basketball genius Jim Calhoun was wooed to Storrs. Most intelligent people consider this the most important moment in history, though I would argue that it's less important than 1) UConn's national title in 1999 and 2) the Big Bang, which created all the material in the universe as we know it. In that order.

Last meeting: UConn 69, Northeastern 60 (Dec. 9, 2007 at Gampel)

Dyson is the only player left from UConn's starting lineup, while most of Northeastern's team (sophomores then) are still around.

Dyson led all UConn players with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Matt Janning, who will frustrate the shit out of you tonight, scored 29 points on 22 shots (5-10 from 3, 6-6 FT).

State of the Huskies: Which one? HAHAHAHAHA AREN'T I SO WITTY HAHA BECAUSE YOU SEE THERE ARE TWO TEAMS NICKNAMED HUSKIES IN THIS GAME HAHAHAHA.

Ahem.

Last time they were on the court, UConn disgraced itself with a 22-point loss to St. John's and their dead-man-walking coach. It was the second straight game the Huskies just kind of stopped playing despite an outside shot at the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, though, things are looking up:

--A Villanova blog joined SBNation, shamelessly aping our name. It's always nice to inspire people. More importantly, this development made transferring the SBNation Curse a snap, and I firmly believe that we're out of the woods on this one.

--Coach Cal announced that, indeed, he will be the head coach at UConn for at least a few more years (I wouldn't be surprised if the length of the contract, like the premature announcement of that contract, is a ploy to keep other teams from recruiting against Calhoun's age. But still.)

Frankly, this news was enough to settle my fears about the future of the program. For now.

Hopefully, last Tuesday will end up being the lowest point UConn basketball will experience for a long time. I feel like the mojo is shifting. And I reserve the right to retract the last four paragraphs of this section if UConn loses tonight.

So, tell me a little bit about the Huskies: They're a solid team who have beaten a few teams of note and had an excellent year, finishing second in the Colonial Athletic Association.

NU got off to a bad start, losing seven of their first nine games (to teams like Siena, Providence, URI and St. Mary's), though they did beat NCAA at-large Utah State at home.

However, the Huskies turned things around shortly before entering CAA play in January. Their best in-conference win of the year came on Jan. 4, when they knocked off Virginia Commonwealth (53rd in the KenPom rankings), 62-57, on the road. Northeastern finished their CAA schedule 14-4 before playing a pair of nailbiters in the CAA Tournament (beating Hofstra 74-71 in 2OTs, losing to William & Mary).

Matt Janning, a 6-4 senior guard, is NU's key offensive player. He's not a great 3-point shooter (32.5%), but he gets his points (15.3 ppg), dishes out more than three assists per game and rarely turns it over.

Chaisson Allen, a 6-4 junior guard, has a very good defensive reputation, and he's an excellent shooter (40.6% from 3, 54.5 eFG%).

Northeastern is your typical mid-major, whose center, Nkem Ojougboh (9.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, the team's best rebounder by percentage of rebounds grabbed) is 6-9. As we've seen this year, UConn hasn't been able to take advantage of teams with their size and length advantage because, obviously, Ater Majok and Alex Oriakhi have no offensive game at this point.

Final note on Northeastern: Baptiste Bataille, a role-playing guard, has one of the most badass names I've seen this year. Fear him.

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

The preview: We start, as is custom, with a look at the Four Factors, courtesy of KenPom.com

UConn Northeastern
Overall Rank 46 76
Off. Efficency 106.8 104.6
Def. Efficency 90.8 92.9
Pace 69.2 61.9
Off. EFG% 48.3 50.2
Def. EFG% 44.2 46.2
OReb% 38.2 30.1
Def. OReb% 34.4 35.7
Off. TO% 21.8 19.1
Def. TO% 18.3 22.4
Off. FT Rate 44.9 35.2
Def. FT Rate
26.4 28.7

 

This is kind of an interesting clash of styles. Going by these numbers, Northeastern likes to slow things down (one of the fewest possessions-per-game in America) and force turnovers. They don't foul much at all, but they also rarely get to the line. Their weakness appears to be on the boards.

Most of this information bodes well for tonight, assuming we don't get the flat, uninspired effort that UConn gave in its previous two games. That's a dangerous assumption, of course. The seniors seemed to lose heart after the last-second Louisville loss; maybe the promise of a second chance to not f--k up the end of the senior years will make them not suck at basketball.

/cynicism

UConn can win if it gets to the rim, limits the turnovers (ha!) and crashes the boards. This is one of those games that Northeastern will need to shoot well to win. Rest assured, they will hit between five or 30 consecutive 3-pointers at some point in this game.

/double-shot of cynicism

In the end, UConn is the favorites - by the numbers, their offense is better, their defense is better. They're bigger and more athletic. They're playing at Gampel (where UConn has lost 18 times in 20 years). But we've seen how that's worked out over the past 32 games. If we get a "Kemba and the Kidz" USF-level effort, UConn wins. If we get a "Jerome and the Seniorz" USF-level effort, UConn loses. Simple as that.

The prediction:

UConn 71, Northeastern 64

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