2013-14 Record: 12-3 (3-1 AAC)
KenPom: No. 25 Overall (No. 41 Offense, No. 30 Defense)
Head coach: Josh Pastner
While it cannot be described as a true "make or break" stretch, the next portion of UConn's 2013-14 season is undeniably the most critical.
Over an upcoming span of just 50 hours, the Huskies will tip-off with each of their chief AAC competitors and paint a large chunk of their final regular season picture. First to brush up against UConn are the no. 17 Memphis Tigers.
Long-time champions of Conference USA, the Tigers have broken into the American with three wins in their first four conference games, including a 73-67 road takedown of no. 12 Louisville. Their lone loss came back on Jan. 4 against a tough Cincinnati group that allowed them a humbling 53 points at home. Last time out, Memphis cruised to a 79-69 victory over Temple, behind a career-high 23 points from sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin.
Goodwin, standing at 6' 9" and 245 lbs., figures to be the centerpiece of any defensive gameplan the comparably undersized Huskies may deploy tonight. The Atlanta native is the second-leading scorer for Memphis and will likely draw a frequent matchup with freshman Amida Brimah, who collected 20 points, eight rebounds and five blocks last Saturday against UCF. Goodwin averages over 13 points and seven boards per game.
Meanwhile, in the backcourt, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will cross paths with Tiger seniors Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford. Jackson, one of the many strong guards in AAC, leads his team in points, assists, free-throw percentage and stands second in steals. Though he has struggled as of late, shooting just 4-14 from the floor against Temple. In that game, Crawford shot similarly, and he should be the only Tiger to create cause for concern from distance, as he is the only Memphis player shooting over 34 percent from downtown.
Sixth man Michael Dixon Jr., a former Missouri transfer, is yet another Tiger to keep an eye on. The one-time All-Big 12 second-teamer is third on his team in points, after finishing with 15 points at Temple.
Now as a group, Memphis almost ignores the three-point line and instead relies heavily on transition. The effectiveness of their up and down style is generated by considerable athleticism at all positions on the floor. And not only are they long and fast, but the the Tigers are amongst the best in the nation at forcing opponents into turnovers, as told by their sixth-best national ranking in steals.
Clearly, taking care of the basketball will be paramount for UConn if they wish to leave the River City tonight with a victory. Not to mention, it will be excellent practice for the most anticipated game of the season, this Saturday when reigning champion Louisville comes to Storrs in primetime. However, there's never truly one key to taking home a win, particularly against a top-25 opponent.
From this view, the Huskies not only need continued production from Brimah and the typical, strong play from Napier and Boatright, but also well-rounded performances from their back-up ball handlers. Should UConn limit its turnovers, Memphis figures to be offensively forced into a more half-court game, where Husky defenders can sink back to help on Goodwin with little perimeter threat.
This game very well may come down to the likes of Omar Calhoun and Lasan Kromah, who have, as has been well-documented in this space, MIA and clutch in big-time spots, respectively. Yet, if they both perform as capable for the majority of this contest, the Huskies not only should be able to take away the Tigers' most advantageous offensive matchup, but limit their greatest defensive strength.
In fact, we bet that for the most they do, and this one turns out to be a doozy.
Prediction: UConn 73, Memphis 71 OT