UConn seeks to expand its winning streak to three games as the Huskies take on the UMass Lowell Riverhawks in a home contest at Gampel Pavilion tonight.
The Huskies (5-1), who received votes in the AP Poll for the second straight week, have a tantalizing matchup with Arizona to look forward to this weekend, but first must face a River Hawks side whose defense ranks among the worst in the nation. Beside their opponent’s struggles so far, Dan Hurley and his squad receive good news of a different sort, as Sidney Wilson had his suspension lifted and will make his UConn debut in tonight’s game.
Wilson, a redshirt freshman transfer from St. John’s, is a 6-foot-7 swingman considered to have two-way ability. He was a consensus top 100 member of the recruiting class of 2017, over quality players like Kaleb Wesson of Ohio State and Iowa’s Luka Garza. Whether or not he fits into UConn’s rotation immediately remains to be seen, but Hurley should be able to find a role for a player like Wilson.
Hurley will have the opportunity to experiment against the River Hawks (4-4), who have yet to defeat a team ranked above the bottom 100 in KenPom. Led by Al Skinner protege Pat Duquette (brother of former New York Mets general manager Jim Duquette), UMass Lowell has struggled to prevent any opponent from scoring, giving up 82 points in all seven of its games against Division I opponents.
Duquette’s team has not markedly improved over the five previous seasons he’s coached them, which is to be expected for a team that only recently transitioned to Division I, but the sieve of a defense is certainly holding them back. The River Hawks do play at a remarkably high pace, but committing the most fouls of any team in the nation is more a mark of bad play than fast play. And while the River Hawks have rarely had trouble scoring, they have had significant trouble scoring at a rate that keeps them ahead of their opponents, an issue only compounded by all the extra shots they give away.
Take, for example, Josh Gantz. Gantz, one of only two seniors in a young nine-man rotation, is UMass Lowell’s best overall player, and one of three River Hawks shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Gantz has also been charged with 30 fouls already, fouling out twice and finishing the game with four fouls on three more occasions, often forcing a shallow team to replace him with one of several inexperienced freshmen.
Such a high amount of fouls from a team’s most important player is bad, compounding it with a shallow rotation that can’t replace him is worse, and the disease the symptom reveals (a defense with more holes than pumice) is the worst of all. And unlike most players who get themselves into a lot of foul trouble, Gantz isn’t a big man trying to protect the rim from multiple players at once, akin to Amida Brimah. No, Gantz is a perimeter player.
That, perhaps, is the essence of UMass Lowell this season. The River Hawks score often and quickly, and their opponents score one more point seemingly every possession, all while precariously managing a rotation that can’t afford to lose any of its starters. The team isn’t without talent—Alex Rivera and Ryan Jones can shoot and Bryce Daley has played solid defense off the bench so far—but there’s only so much they can do.
Since the high-tempo style gets them into trouble more often than not, one has to ask whether the best thing for them is to let their opponent control the game. Understandably, that isn’t much of a formula for winning basketball games.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: What is Sidney Wilson doing on offense? What’s his role, and what does he do with the ball in his hands? Whose minutes have decreased to make room for him? Also, keep an eye on which of the centers gets more minutes tonight—with the game against Arizona next after this one, whichever of Josh Carlton or Eric Cobb plays better against this weak opponent will be in line for a big game on Sunday.
When UMass Lowell has the ball: Who is Wilson guarding on defense? (Okay, I’ll change it up.) Do the River Hawks change their tempo playing against a strong opponent rather than one their style can overwhelm? Does inefficient top scorer Obadiah Noel get fewer opportunities knowing that every shot will count? Gantz, Rivera, and Jones are all quality shooters from outside—what do the Huskies do on defense against lineups that feature all three?
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SNY, ESPN3
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network