UConn seeks to improve its record to 2-2 against major conference opponents today as the Huskies take on the Florida State Seminoles at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey this evening as part of the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
The Huskies (7-2) have only lost to Iowa and Arizona so far this year, but their victory over rival Syracuse does leave them with one win over an opponent from a power conference. Florida State could be their second if things go right.
Leonard Hamilton might have something to say about that, though. The longtime coach and former Big East opponent (Hamilton coached Miami in the 1990s) has taken Florida State to an unprecedented level of play, bringing the Seminoles the stability and success they had previously only dreamed of.
Despite losing the top two scorers from an Elite Eight team (one to graduation, one to injury), the No. 11 Seminoles (7-1) are in shape to have another great season, having so far lost to reigning national champion Villanova.
Their success starts with their stifling defense, which has confounded opponents all season. The stats might not pop out to the viewer, but the play does. While the Seminoles defense may not be as trap-heavy as Arizona’s defense was, their discipline and chemistry drives the play when their opponents have the ball.
That starts with Trent Forrest, one of the toughest defenders in recent ACC memory. Forrest, a junior swingman, will remind some UConn fans of former Huskies standout Ricky Moore—they’re both tough defensive players with great footwork and smart but limited on offense, but the key difference is that Forrest is taller and longer, capable of guarding multiple positions.
All-around best player Terance Mann could be a problem for the Huskies too, as the small forward is an excellent rebounder and plays well with the ball in his hands. In fact, most of the team could be a problem for the Huskies, as the bench unit plays so well together in Hamilton’s 10-man rotation that the team rarely loses a step when their starters are sitting on the bench. That includes Mfiondu Kabengele, who outpaces his teammates in nearly every category on a per-minute basis but has yet to start a game with Florida State.
The team as a whole does struggle to shoot from outside, though. M.J. Walker and PJ Savoy can pull the trigger, but seemingly nobody else has the green light, even when open. It’s been a trend all year for Florida State’s lead guards to pass up shots from outside, which could play well into the hands of the UConn defenders, who often struggle to cover backside shooters. The Seminoles won’t be looking for those opportunities, and one of their offensive weaknesses is ball movement, so a defense like the one Dan Hurley runs could spell trouble for the ‘Noles.
The Huskies will have their hands full dealing with Hamilton’s defense, but shutting down the Florida State offense could be easier. UConn has a chance to regain the notice of national fans with a win in this game, but a close game against Arizona shows that Hurley’s team will be prepared.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: How does the offense change when facing a team that tries mostly to slow down its opponent? Turnover issues caused the Huskies to lose to Arizona — do Jalen Adams and Christian Vital get less aggressive if the problem recurs? How do the comparatively-shorter Huskies handle Christ Koumadje, the Seminoles’ 7-foot-4 center?
When Florida State has the ball: Are they taking advantage of the breakdowns in the Huskies’ perimeter defense—basically, are they taking the open 3-pointers? Do Forrest and Walker—both prone to turnovers—get any time away from Vital and Alterique Gilbert, the Huskies’ defensive playmakers? How do Josh Carlton and Eric Cobb handle the major size disadvantage they’ll have for the first time all season? Does Phil Cofer, last year’s leading scorer, return from injury to play at all?