UConn and Duke will renew their rivalry Thursday night at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. With a roster that is arguably as loaded as the Blue Devils' 1998-99 team (which lost to the Huskies in the National Championship Game), Duke is an 11.5-point favorite against the defending national champions.
The Huskies are up against it, but they cannot be ruled out against their toughest opponent of the season. With the anticipation building as the game draws closer, Tim Fontenault, an Assistant Manager of The UConn Blog and men's basketball beat writer for The Daily Campus, and Elan-Paolo DeCarlo, The UConn Blog's men's basketball beat writer, discuss the factors that they think will give UConn a chance to knock off the No. 2 Blue Devils.
Tim Fontenault: Sunday’s win over Coppin State had its negatives on the defensive side; 35 points off turnovers is inexcusable and downright pathetic on UConn’s part. But let’s chalk that up to not playing a game for nine days. If UConn can limit Duke’s chances to get out and run by preventing turnovers and continuing to apply pressure on the glass, the Huskies will at least hang around.
Elan-Paolo DeCarlo: I'm with you. UConn's turnover problems against Coppin State was an aberration. Coming into that game, the Huskies were averaging just over 10 turnovers a game, a manageable number. My concerns with the defense lies in their lackluster perimeter defending. To let Coppin State shoot 15 of 32 from distance, to allow Yale and Texas to get wide open looks at the buzzer from the same spot, and to give up 48 total 3-pointers on the season is a bad sign. Duke ranks fourth in the country in points per game and shoot around 38 percent from distance. UConn will struggle if this game turns into a track meet, and the key in avoiding that is to cut off the three point line.
Fontenault: UConn’s perimeter defense has been atrocious. It’s incredible to look back and see that Yale was only 3 of 21 from beyond the arc because it felt like they made 11 or 12. Coppin State was shooting 28 percent from distance despite being in the top 15 in 3-point attempts entering Sunday’s game, and yet I have not seen a team control the perimeter like that in a long time.
Granted, once UConn got far enough in front, it looked like it started to pull it back defensively, almost like the Huskies were saving their energy for Thursday. Ryan Boatright is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, so there is no doubt he is going to be locked in Thursday. Even though he is undersized in comparison to Duke’s backcourt, but has that ever stopped him?
DeCarlo: I'm glad you brought up Boat. He's clearly a tremendous one-on-one defender, but he seems like the only guard on the team that consistently brings it. The other UConn guards, Sam Cassell Jr., Rodney Purvis and Terrence Samuel, have been been lazy and inconsistent on the defensive end. Cassell in particular seems lost, especially when forced into situations where he has to switch. Assuming Boat handles Quinn Cook, that leaves one of the other guards to deal with Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyus Jones. Purvis and Cassell will need to bring more focus to the table in order to stand a chance.
Now, most people are probably looking to the front court in this matchup. Duke's Jahlil Okafor is widely regarded as the likely No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Through the opening 9 games of the season, he has lived up to the billing. Averaging 18.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, Okafor has been sensational. UConn's Amida Brimah, coming off a career high 40-point, 12-rebound performance, has his work cut out for him. Brimah is an active defender, with quick feet and long arms, but he's struggled to body his man. Brimah will need to find a way to keep his ground against the bruising Okafor.
Fontenault: Duke reminds me of Texas in terms of size, and Brimah struggled mightily against their bigs. He will have to do better against Okafor, which is a daunting task considering that few are as good as the super freshman. But for as soft as we have seen him play at times, Brimah is a beast at the rim, capable of blocking Okafor’s shots, so long as he can stay out of foul trouble.
Offensively, if UConn can move the ball and attack the lane, it will give Brimah opportunities to get above the rim. What I want to see is more of the Hamilton-Bimah combination. Everyone knows that Hamilton is the real deal, and if he can beat Justice Winslow into the lane and draw some pressure from Amile Jefferson and Okafor, that will make it easier for either Brimah or Kentan Facey to get above the rim, right where Hamilton likes them. If UConn can attack the rim, it can also open up the perimeter. The Huskies have to be feeling good after going 7 of 18 from deep the other day.
DeCarlo: To me, UConn's chances of winning this game ride on the shoulders of Daniel Hamilton. We all know Boatright will show up and get his 20 points 5 boards 4 assists and a few steals, but the key is where he'll get help from. That needs to be Hamilton. The freshman has been impressive in all facets of the game. He registered his first career double double against Coppin State, with 11 points and 11 dimes, he's had games where he's grabbed nine rebounds and has proven he can shoot it from deep. Following Coppin State, Hamilton made mention of the fact that he wants the world to see just how good he is. If he can put all his skills together and take it to Duke, he will emerge as one of the premier freshmen in the country.
Also, this is go time for Rodney Purvis. It's time for the Ferrari to put it into fifth gear and remind UConn fans of what we were waiting for. To put it kindly, Purvis has been underwhelming. Dealing with an ankle injury, Purvis has been slow out of the gate. Now would be an opportune time to break out. With experience playing against the Blue Devils, expect Purvis to play without inhibitions. This is an opportunity for him to really put a stamp on his time as a Husky.
Fontenault: Last year was hell for Purvis, sitting out while his new team wins a national championship. I can’t even imagine what this year has felt like, starting with the suspension, then he kills it against Dayton, only to pull up lame against West Virginia. I talked to him Tuesday. He has the itch, you could tell. He is fired up for Thursday’s game, so expect Purvis to give it everything he has. I’m expecting a big game out of him.
On Hamilton, I agree that the game will rest on his shoulders, and he has the talent to take over a game. Sunday’s performance was fantastic, and that was not even his best performance of the year. When he’s feeling it, he can sink shots from anywhere (see that burst of 3-pointers against College of Charleston).
This is the kind of game UConn lives for. Playing in a weak conference and with Florida struggling, this may be the Huskies’ last marquee game of the year. They are going in as the underdog, written off in some circles, but expect them to put up a fight.