UConn started this season off with a bang, upsetting a ranked Michigan State team in Germany on national tv. Since then the Huskies have struggled, most recently against a New Hampshire team that UConn couldn't put away to save their lives. You know this and I know this because if you're on this site you're a hardcore fan following most, if not all, of the games. Do you know who doesn't know this? Everyone else. To them UConn is the talent-deprived team playing hard for their new coach to grind out 10- to 20-point victories against lesser competition. Which is why tonight's national tv game against N.C. State in Madison Square Garden is so important. It's a huge stage against a nationally ranked opponent, and how the Huskies do tonight is going to do a lot to drive the narrative around this team for the next few months.
And those few months happen to be very, very important for Kevin Ollie. UConn closes out December against Harvard, Maryland Eastern Shore, Fordham and a middling Washington team. That Washington game may be on TV (ESPN2 on 12/29, against a bowl game), but make no mistake, this matchup is going to determine how UConn is perceived in the media. If the Huskies play a tough, close game, or better yet if they win, the plaudits for Ollie from national figures won't be stopping anytime soon. On the other hand, if UConn gets blown out you'll start to hear the first questions being asked about Ollie, especially in the wake of weak performances against New Hampshire and Stony Brook. So this matters, a lot.
The good news is that UConn has the talent to beat this N.C. State team. They've got a dynamic offense (12th in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency), but they can certainly be beat (KenPom says they're about as good as New Mexico). The bad news is that the Wolfpack have the best frontline UConn has seen this year. C.J. Leslie is averaging 11.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and certainly has the potential to go off for 25 and 10. It doesn't stop there either as Leslie is joined by the formidable senior Richard Howell (6'8, 257) who is throwing up 14 points and 7.8 boards this year. That's going to be a lot for Tyler Olander, DeAndre Daniels and Enosch Wolf to handle, and if UConn gets in early foul trouble like they have been you can call it an early night.
In fact, it's so much for UConn's front court to handle that you can be almost certain the won't actually be able to do it. That's where Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun come in. All three have been inconsistent this year (Boatright and Napier have been struggling in the first halves, especially when the bigs have to sit, Calhoun has been hot or cold depending on the night), but UConn will need all three to score and score early if they want to keep pace. Luckily they'll have some help as UConn's "glue-guy" RJ Evans is finally returning from injury. If UConn struggles early, as they have of late, he has the potential to provide a steady hand and keep things from getting out of control.
It's weird to throw around something like "biggest game of Kevin Ollie's career" when we're just seven games into it, but it feels like that. A win tonight launches UConn back into the polls and puts them in a position to be 11-1 heading into Big East play. That'd start putting a lot of pressure on AD Warde Manuel to give Ollie a real contract and it'd give Ollie a great buffer against public perception no matter what happens in Big East play.
The game should tip around 9:30 on ESPN. This is your OpenThread. Join us in the comments below, and remember: take the stairs, because escalators are for cowards.