It's been two long years since we've seen UConn play in the Big Dance. The last time the Huskies took the court for an NCAA Tournament game, I was in college, Conan O'Brien was set to become the permanent host of the Tonight Show and the UConn women were the No. 1 seed and a prohibitive favorite to win a national championship.
OK, so not everything's different. But, I figured a special occasion like this (and, if we're so blessed, any future NCAA games) called for the return of our never-lamented UConnBlog Official Game Previews. Onwards, below the jump:
The good news about earning a top-3 seed in this bracket is that you avoid the middling mass of mediocrity that exists from seed lines 5-13 (a mass, by the way, which we thought UConn was a part of up until last Thursday or so). It's highly likely you're going to see a lot of upsets today and tomorrow, and just about everyone from seed lines 13 and up seems capable of beating anyone else on any given day.
For UConn, at least, they seem to have avoided the biggest first-round landmines (Belmont, Oakland, etc.); the fact of the matter is that, unless Bucknell plays lights out and UConn comes out sluggish, the Huskies should win this game and advance to Saturday's second round.
Then again, any team that shoots the 3 as well as the Bison (40.2, 7th-best in the country according to KenPom) can cause you headaches, AND Bucknell has done this sort of thing before (sorry, Kansas and Arkansas fans), AND, well, we all remember what happened last time the Huskies played in an NCAA Tournament game in Washington, D.C.
I personally don't think that any team that plays man defense against this UConn team will stand much of a chance (and that goes for some of the top seeds in the West Region, too), and I don't think that something called a "Bryan Cohen" can stick Kemba Walker. But it would be foolish to sleep on the Bison.
The game: #3 UConn (26-9, Big East champion) vs. #14 Bucknell (25-8, Patriot League champion) - NCAA Tournament, West Region First Round
The place: Verizon Center - Washington, D.C.
The time: 7:20 p.m.
The Vegas favorite: UConn, minus-10
NCAA Tournament histories: Bucknell: 5th appearance, 2-4 record. Best result: Round of 32 (2005 and 2006). Last appearance: 2006.
UConn: 30th appearance, 46-28 record. Best result: national champions, (1999 and 2004). Last appearance: 2009.
Series history: UConn leads, 2-0
Last meeting: UConn 80, Bucknell 64 (December 12, 1953 at Lewisburg, Pa.)
So, tell me a little bit about the Bison: Bucknell won 20+ games for the third time in the last 17 seasons; in each of the previous two 20-win seasons, the Bison won an NCAA Tournament game.
They have a very solid lineup, led by 6-10 Mike Muscala, who averages 15 points and 7.4 points per game. His highest single-game totals against NCAA Tournament teams (of which Bucknell has played four) were 17 points and 8 rebounds in a 62-61 win over Richmond.
According to KenPom, Muscala is the 78th-best defensive rebounder in the country, and 51st-best at blocking shots. He can be a handful, though at 223 pounds, he is a little undersized.
Your candidate for "annoying little guy who could make UConn's life hell" is 6-1 sophomore Bryson Johnson, who took 209 3-pointers this season, hitting 45.9% of them.
Point guard Darryl Shazier is just 6-0, so the job of guarding Kemba Walker will go to 6-5 junior Bryan Cohen. (Link is notable for Shabazz Napier swagging it up. Let's hope he backs up his semi-trash talk...)
A brief look at Bucknell's Four Factors:
Effective FG%: offensive, 51.2 (73rd); defensive, 45.0 (18th)
Turnover%: offensive, 17.2 (27th); defensive, 18.2 (281st)
Offensive rebound%: offensive, 26.5 (320th); defensive, 28.7 (41st)
FT rate: offensive, 34.3 (264th); defensive, 35.8 (126th)
This seems like exactly what you'd expect for your typical mid-major. It's a team that relies on executing their offense, taking care of the ball and hitting shots. The field goal percentage defense surprised me, and given that UConn isn't a great-shooting team, it's a little worrying. Then again, I wonder how much of that number is due to Muscala's presumable height advantage over the rest of the Patriot League (an advantage he won't have against Alex Oriakhi and/or Charles Okwandu).
Interesting UConn game notes fact: The Huskies are 26-7 in nine NCAA Tournament appearances since 1999. UConn is also 5-1 in NCAA Tournament games at the Verizon Center, winning in the first and second rounds in 1998 and 2002, and splitting in 2006.
Interesting Bucknell game notes fact: The Bison went 13-1 in the Patriot League, and had an average margin of victory of +12.8 points in the conference. They are also 16-0 when they outrebound their opponents.
- Piccolo brothers of Southbury caught in Bucknell, UConn battle (Danbury News-Times)
- UConn needs Alex Oriakhi to play strong up front (MANthony/Hartford Courant)
- UConn opponent Bucknell has confidence (Hartford Courant)
- Can Huskies stay up? (Journal-Inquirer)
- Shazier is Bucknell's steady leader at point (Boston.com)
The prediction: If UConn plays anywhere near its Big East Tournament level of play, they'll cruise. If UConn plays anywhere near the way it played during the latter half of the Big East regular season schedule, this will be a frustrating struggle.
I'm not particularly worried about UConn's supposed physical exhaustion after the Greatest Big East Tournament Run Of All Times(TM), but I am a little concerned about the Huskies' mental state. We all saw how, when he finally had to take a break after ~200 straight minutes of basketball, Kemba Walker was really out of sync in the second half of the Louisville game.
I'm thinking there might be that same sort of deal after four days off. No longer in rhythm, no longer running on adrenaline, no longer in that zone...
ESPN's Jay Bilas has said numerous times this week that today's game will be the toughest UConn plays in the tournament. I agree. Coming out with energy after the layoff will be the key. Thankfully, Bucknell has generously announced they will be playing man defense, and that should be the perfect tonic to get the Huskies acclimated to this whole NCAA Tournament thing.
The crucial factor as always: Bucknell has no Kemba Walker. Advantage, UConn.
UConn 71 , Bucknell 59