After a promising streak of two wins to begin the season, UConn faces its first test of the year as the Huskies travel to Madison Square Garden to face the Syracuse Orange in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic.
With two games in the books, we’re beginning to understand how Dan Hurley envisions the role for each player. Jalen Adams is still leading the way, as he’s gotten off to a great start, scoring 18 points per game.
Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital provide spacing and respecitvely offer game management and excellent perimeter defense. Josh Carlton is a two-way interior presence, and Tyler Polley stretches the floor, and either can be replaced with well-rounded center Eric Cobb or defensive specialists Isaiah Whaley and Kassoum Yakwe.
Tarin Smith is a backcourt sparkplug off the bench, and Brendan Adams is capable of scoring when called upon, especially from the 3-point line.
It’s a solid 10-man rotation, and one that UConn will be able to challenge even tough opponents with. They’ll need to challenge tough opponents tonight, because Syracuse is a certainly one of them.
I know, it pains me to say it too, but Syracuse is good. The Orange rank No. 15 in the AP poll (UConn is unranked, but that’ll change eventually) and No. 8 in KenPom (UConn ranks 97th). Syracuse has also won both of its games so far, a blowout win against Eastern Washington and a much tighter (but still not close) one over Morehead State.
Syracuse’s famous 2-3 zone defense is designed to pack it in and prevent teams from getting the ball in the middle, at the expense of outside jumpers, and is susceptible to strong interior passing. UConn has yet to show the latter, but the outside shot has fallen so far. Even with only two games completed, UConn has five proven perimeter shooting options, and Brendan Adams is likely to become the sixth at some point.
That’s a good strategy for winning in modern basketball, and a very good strategy for combatting Syracuse. If UConn can score in bunches, the Orange might struggle to keep up—only one Syracuse player has made more than one 3-pointer this year, and they’re shooting 18.2 percent from deep as a team. This isn’t a new trend for this group of players, as essentially the entire Syracuse team returns from last season, and that iteration of the Orange ranked 328th nationwide in 3-point percentage.
Syracuse is led by NBA prospects Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett, Boeheim’s top two scorers from last year. Battle is an explosive point guard who hasn’t quite put everything together yet, and Brissett is a talented yet unrefined swingman who fills up stat sheets but can be inefficient. Frank Howard, last year’s third-highest scorer, might not have yet recovered from the foot injury that held him out of the first two games of the season.
Elijah Hughes, a volume scorer who transferred to Syracuse from East Carolina, Marek Dolezaj, an impact player off the bench, highly-touted freshman Jalen Carey, and coach’s son Buddy Boeheim are some of Cuse’s other backcourt options. While Hughes and Dolezaj have made the most of their minutes, the latter two have struggled so far.
On the interior, the Orange play imposing 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu and not-much-smaller Bourama Sidibe replaces him off the bench. Chukwu in particular might be the key to Syracuse’s defensive success.
Jim Boeheim is unlikely to ever change his ways, whether in terms of on-court tactics or his short rotations, or just the way he talks. Since tonight will mark the 95th game in the UConn-Syracuse rivalry, fans of the Huskies won’t see anything they haven’t seen before from the Orange. Yes, they’ll test UConn, and they should certainly be considered the favorite going into the game, but Hurley won’t be finding anything unexpected, which could play right into his hands. If UConn beats Syracuse—or even paces them for the entire game—it would show the Huskies are serious this year.
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network