Are the Huskies legit? We'll find out tonight. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
UConn has won three games in as many days, beaten two top-25 outfits and played perhaps its best game of the season in toppling the Big East's top team.
And yet, it still hasn't proven much.
We've seen the winning streaks, the high-profile victories and the miraculous comebacks before.
But what we haven't seen this week is the one thing that has derailed UConn's ascension back into the nation's elite: competency against a zone defense.
Although, it's no fault of its own.
Despite the undeniable success teams have had employing some version of a matchup zone against the Huskies -- after Louisville had great success with it late in a double-overtime win on Jan. 29, the zone became the defense du jour for opponents the rest of the regular season, during which UConn dropped six of 10 games - neither DePaul, Georgetown nor Pittsburgh employed the strategy with any dedication or zeal in Madison Square Garden, choosing instead to primarily guard them straight up, man-to-man. And while all three hung with the Huskies -- some longer than others -- their collective ambivalence toward such a crippling force to UConn's attack likely had played some part in their undoing.
But the Huskies will get no such break in their next matchup.
Syracuse and the 2-3 zone are essentially synonymous, as the now uncommon defense (at least among major D-I programs) has become, along with a searing snarl, a trademark of Jim Boeheim. And while Huskies opponents have somewhat unwillingly switched defensive schemes specifically because of how much trouble UConn has had with it in the season's second half, the Orange's 2-3 is as refined as they come, having trotted it out as their base defense in all of their previous 33 games this season, and a boatload more before then.
The Orange might as well douse themselves in kryptonite before taking the court in NYC; they just so happen to master in the one thing that UConn simply cannot combat. And the Huskies -- especially Kemba Walker -- know this from first-hand experience.
In the teams' only matchup this season, a 66-58 ‘Cuse victory at The Morgue, Walker had his worst single-game performance of the season, scoring a season-low eight points on a season-low 21.4% shooting, including 1-for-6 shooting from behind the arc. And, as is often the case, an off-as-it-gets Walker received little support from his backing band; aside from Jeremy Lamb, who scored 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting, none of the three other players with five shot attempts or more connected on even half their shots.
Their zone simply denies all the things the Huskies do well offensively, and preys on all of their weaknesses.
Devoid of any truly complex schemes, UConn creates shot opportunity mostly through penetration from its ballhandler, and it has two of the best in the conference at it in Walker and Shabazz Napier. However, by placing two defenders up top playing an area rather than a man, most zones are able to collapse on either guard as soon as they try to attack the rim, with even more defenders waiting in the lane should they advance farther.
The attention on such actions should leave open opportunities to kick-outs on the wings for long-range shooters. However, UConn is awful from behind the arc (33.6 3P%, No. 204 nationally) - not a good sign against a Syracuse D that allows 31.4 3P% a game, No. 31 in the country -- and neither ball-handling guard is really adept at create opportunities for others, as Walker and Napier rank No. 165 and 219 in assist rate at 26.9 and 25.3, respectively.
And post help? Forget about it. Some semblance of an interior offense would give the Huskies' shooters more room with which to work, but Alex Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu and Tyler Olander offer little value outside of the offensive glass, giving defenses little reason to keep track of them in the high pick-and-roll UConn loves so much.
Yet, in spite of their flaws, the Huskies were able to hang Thursday with the No. 5 offense in the country by capitalizing on turnovers and controlling the boards, ultimately handing top-seeded Pitt just its fifth loss on the season. And if UConn does the same today, it could pull off yet another upset.
But UConn uncharacteristically underperformed in both areas - two of its strongest suits, ranking No. 29 in TO% and No. 9 in OR% -- last time against Syracuse, turning it over seven more times and pulling down six fewer rebounds.
Some of that could be circumstantial; for instance, the Huskies turned it over just three times against Notre Dame a week ago and still fell three points shy. But it also may be a sign of things to come.
The zone has significantly impeded any progress the Huskies were hoping to make over the season's stretch run. Regardless of all the good they did to start the season in stripping themselves from the also-ran status thrust upon them at the start of the season, and all the development their young, talented core has made, the only measurement that truly counts at this point of the season when gauging their elite-level credentials is how they perform against the zone.
And so far, they haven't proven anything that positive.
They'll get their chance to prove differently tonight.