In early January, UConn lost a hard-fought double-overtime road game to Tulsa by two points. The two teams meet again tonight at the XL Center in Hartford, and neither has fared very well since that game.
Tulsa (14-10, 7-5 AAC) is tied for fourth in the American Athletic Conference, a solid result for a season where the Golden Hurricane weren’t expected to compete in the conference, and are on a three-game win streak—almost making up for their four straight losses right after their win over the Huskies.
Frank Haith has appeared to right the ship at Tulsa in his fourth year there, adding some stability to a tumultuous program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons in over a decade. The team still isn’t that strong, but they’re unlikely to be terrible for the foreseeable future.
Tulsa is a balanced team that has shown an incredible ability to get to the free throw line, which makes up for its lackluster shooting percentages. The foul differential was perhaps the biggest factor that led to their win over the Huskies in January, as Tulsa attempted 36 free throws.
Offensively, Tulsa is led by a set of four upperclassmen who typically are the only players to make a positive contribution on that end of the floor. Junior Etou is the centerpiece, leading the team in scoring and displaying the most versatile offensive skill set. Sterling Taplin is the point guard who can score pretty well when not looking to set up a teammate. Corey Henderson is a three-point specialist who went off for 30 points against UConn. DaQuan Jeffries, the team’s best defender, is the last in this group, as his .605 mark from two sets up a nice inside-out game, providing the opportunities for him to shoot .372 from three.
The Golden Hurricane’s defense is what normally allows them to win games, as they lack a truly bad defender on the roster, though only Jeffries is particularly impressive. They play a conservative system very similar to the one developed for a talent-challenged Charlotte Hornets team by Steve Clifford, one of basketball’s top defensive experts. The style emphasizes defensive rebounding and positioning around the perimeter, forcing opponents to take contested threes and mid-range jumpers while staying away from forcing turnovers and taking risks. It’s provided moderate dividends for Tulsa so far, as only Etou and Jeffries are truly two-way players, but Haith can bring players like Jaleel Wheeler and Geno Artison off the bench for important defensive situations.
In order to win the rematch, UConn will have to eliminate the defensive positioning issues that led to the foul trouble Tulsa was hoping for. That may mean Terry Larrier won’t play 50 minutes this time (hopefully, the game won’t last for 50 minutes again), but Kevin Ollie should focus on trusting his bench a little more this time out; Tyler Polley played only one minute in the double-overtime contest.
Focusing on defense-first lineups should be the difference, as it is unlikely that defensive standout Josh Carlton will foul out after only six minutes again. If the Huskies can focus more on the defensive end and take advantage of a more welcoming crowd at home, they should be able to tie up the season series.
PREDICTION: UConn 74, Tulsa 68