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RAC 'em up: UConn at Rutgers preview

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A couple notes before we get to the basketballing:

In kind of a cool development, we seem to be growing a small but steadily increasing group of commenters (beyond the four or so who have been with us since the WordPress days), and we thank you for that. I've been trying to brainstorm ways to get y'all involved on those days where posting is light. If you've got any suggestions for stuff you'd like to see regularly, go ahead and suggest it in the comments. (This will also help us out when basketball season ends in three weeks four weeks mid-April four weeks.)

Secondly, Porter's optimism post from yesterday, as usual, makes me vomit butterflies and sunshine. But I thought it raises a very good point that we all should keep in mind. Jim Calhoun has always been a program builder. If you think about every great team he's had at UConn - and there have been a ton, obviously - you can probably find a mediocre year hiding in the weeds a year or two before or after.

That's just the nature of building with (mostly) three- and four-year players. When you don't recruit eight McDonald's All-Americans per year, you're left with freshmen that need time to grow. And occasionally, things work out where those freshmen need to contribute for the team to be any good.

We're at the beginning of another cycle, just as we were in 2007, 2001 and 1993. And while I certainly don't plan on not taking out frustration when this squad loses, it will be done with the knowledge that Cal willing, everything is on course to fall in place a year or two from now.

Now, onto today's game, below the jump.

As always, any UConn-Rutgers sporting event is near and dear to my heart. RU remains a hideous blight on my home state, a pit of sulfuric acid in a territory of Eden-like beauty (except for any town along the Turnpike. Yuck.)

In general, any time I attend a UConn-Rutgers game, in any sport, it ends in heartbreak, super-ultra-mega heartbreak, or absolute boredom-plus-frustration.

(Note: Of course I will be attending this game. I'll be in Section 217, so if you'd like to see what I look like in real life, walk over to that section, yell "EVERYONE IN THE WORLD SHOULD READ THEUCONNBLOG.COM," and I'll give you the ol' thumbs-up.)

Thankfully, this is men's basketball we're talking about. Losing to Rutgers only happens to the most inconsistent of teams, and if there's one word to describe this UConn team, it would be "dependable."

UConn comes in five days after upsetting No. 3 Villanova, and given that they need to win four of their last five to keep those faint NCAA Tournament hopes alive, they should come out fired up and ready to play today at the RAC.

On the other hand, they'll probably come out flat, Mike Rosario will score 40, and I'll intentionally try to flip my car on Route 287 on the drive home out of misery. Such is UConn basketball in 2010 (2012willbeawesome2012willbeawesome2012willbeawesome2012willbeawesome).

The game: UConn (15-11, 5-8 Big East) at Rutgers (14-12, 4-9 Big East)

The place: Louis Brown Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ

The time: 4 p.m.

The media: TV- SNY, MyTV9; RADIO- WTIC 1080-AM, WOR 710-AM (in NJ)

The Vegas favorite: UConn, by 7

Series history: UConn leads, 32-13. The Huskies have only lost to Rutgers once since 1978 - a 61-53 Rutgers win in January 2002. Ten of Rutgers' 13 wins in the series came during the 1970s, when they were a relative national power and even made a Final Four (1976).

Last meeting: UConn 80, Rutgers 49 (Jan. 3, 2009), which capped off a triple threat day of UConn athletics - after the International Bowl win over Buffalo and the UConn women's win over LSU in Hartford. Five UConn players scored in double figures, led by Hasheem Thabeet's 15.

State of the Huskies: Slightly more optimistic than we were last week. Funny how a win over a top-5 team can do that.

Kemba Walker is back to deity status around these parts, thanks to his 29-point effort on Monday. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that we now expect that every game for the rest of the season, although we'll settle for 25 points, 10 assists and 5 steals per game.

Jim Calhoun had a vintage performance on Monday, perhaps his best single-game coaching performance since the Indiana win two years ago. Benching Alex Oriakhi appeared to be a brilliant move, allowing UConn's other frontcourt fodder to trade early fouls with Villanova's bigs. As it turns out, UConn has more depth in the post than Guard University of Philadelphia. Oriakhi himself scored 10 points, grabbed 4 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in 25 minutes, arguably his best game of the year.

UConn's NCAA Tournament hopes are still, amazingly, alive with five games left in the season. Given UConn's top-10 strength of schedule and top-50 RPI, 20 wins should do the trick. Which means either the Huskies have to win out in the regular season, or finally win a Big East Tournament game or two.

So, tell me a little bit about the Scarlet Knights: For the first time in a few years, Rutgers' record is actually kind of respectable (for Rutgers). The Scarlet Knights have won five of their last six to leave DePaul in their 14th-place dust. With a win today, Rutgers could actually climb into a position where they'd be wearing their home whites in the preliminary round of the Big East tournament.

Rutgers had been winless in league play until Jan. 30, when they upset Notre Dame, 74-73. From there, RU polished off St. John's fairly easily (in a game where Mike Rosario went bananas), before a sluggish loss at Louisville and a sluggish win over Division II (and three-win) Caldwell College. For those of you wondering why Rutgers scheduled a crappy D-II team in February, well, you and Rosario were on the same wavelength.

The big breakthrough came last Sunday, when RU shocked Georgetown at the RAC, 71-68. After a gritty win against DePaul earlier this week, Rutgers sits at 4-9, two games over .500, and with a reasonable enough schedule down the stretch to possibly even make a run at a CBI berth.

The Scarlet Knights have two definite Big East-caliber players, Rosario (16.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), a 2008 McDonald's All-American, and Hamidy N'diaye (9.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3rd in the country in blocks).

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

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

UConn Rutgers
Overall Rank 46 138
Off. Efficency 107.6 102.6
Def. Efficency 90.5 99.6
Pace 69.3 68.8
Off. EFG% 48.9 48.6
Def. EFG% 43.3 47.9
OReb% 36.9 33.7
Def. OReb% 34.5 36.8
Off. TO% 21.2 21.9
Def. TO% 18.0 18.6
Off. FT Rate 46.0 33.6
Def. FT Rate
24.7 30.8

 

According to these numbers, UConn is at least marginally better in just about every category.

Of particular interest is that Rutgers, whose lineup will feature just one player over 6-8 (N'diaye), is one of the 30 worst teams in the country at allowing other teams to hit the offensive glass. That 36.8% rate is good for 315th in the country.

Both teams turn it over and force turnovers at roughly the same rate.

UConn's free throw rate is a sight to behold (24th in the country), and the Huskies remain one of the least foul-prone teams in the country. Rutgers doesn't get to the line much, and the numbers seem to show that they are going to go as far as their outside shooters take them. RU takes about a third of their shots from behind the 3-point line (34.0), and they make about a third of those shots (33.7), both of which are around average for all D-I teams.

UConn is a better team, they should win this game and get back to 6-8 in the league with a huge road Hartford game against West Virginia coming up in 48 hours. Then again, they should have beaten Providence, Marquette and Cincinnati once or twice. No one really knows which UConn team will show up.

Hopefully Jim Calhoun's scouting report on Rutgers listed the Scarlet Knights' starting lineup as "Walton, Alcindor, Laettner, Bird and Maravich" on his chalkboard, because the level of the opposition seems like the only reliable predictor of how well UConn will play. And that's worriesome.

More worriesome is that Rutgers is coming in with loads of confidence after their recent success, which could be big for a team that has relied all season on the confidence of their shooter, Rosario (his 31.7 shot percentage makes him the 51st-biggest ball hog in America.) They'll also have a sold out crowd at the RAC, and presumably most of those will not be UConn fans who bought tickets for cheap on StubHub.

That being said, here are my three keys to victory.

  1. Force Turnovers -- Rutgers turns the ball over ~15 times per game. If they do that today, UConn should be able to get bunches of easy points in transition. But if Rutgers suddenly decides to be careful with the ball, as they were on Sunday against Georgetown (8 turnovers), then it'll be a matchup of halfcourt offenses. And that's not exactly UConn's best formula for winning.
  2. Get An Early Lead -- The RAC is a very tricky place to play. The court is surrounded by high bleachers on two sides, and it can get extremely loud on those rare occasions Rutgers is playing well. If Rutgers can keep the game close in the second half, it'll be interesting (read: scary) to see how UConn reacts.
  3. Rebound. Rebound. Rebound. -- This UConn team is an awful (for UConn) rebounding team. Rutgers is just a plain awful rebounding team. Win the battle on the boards, which they should be able to do, and

I get the feeling that this game is going to be much more annoying than any of us would like. Rutgers can be very pesky, as Luke Harangody and Greg Monroe can tell you. Still, this is a game UConn has to have. So...

The prediction:

UConn 69, Rutgers 60