With only five games left in the regular season, UConn has found itself in a hard place with a 12-14 record (5-8 in the American Athletic Conference), but the Huskies will be hoping to spark a turnaround with a road win over East Carolina at 3 p.m. this afternoon.
The Pirates are one of the worst teams in any important conference, with their 10-14 record resembling UConn’s only because East Carolina played an incredibly weak non-conference schedule. ECU has one of the least effective offenses in the country, and while the Pirates’ defense is better, it’s nowhere near good enough to overcome the lack of scoring on the other end.
The previous matchup between these two teams was an XL Center game in early January that the Huskies won by only five points. A variety of factors went into that game being close—Jalen Adams had a very poor performance, Josh Carlton inexplicably played only five minutes, and the team recorded 16 turnovers—and Kevin Ollie’s squad will need to be on high alert for another potential upset.
The Pirates have four players that average more than 10 points a game. The best of the bunch by some distance is Kentrell Barkley, a quality two-way player who would get minutes at any college in the nation. B.J. Tyson is the leading scorer and scored 21 points in the January game in Hartford. Point guard Isaac Fleming is a headstrong transfer from Hawaii whose effectiveness has diminished since moving to Greenville; he was involved in an altercation with the injured Alterique Gilbert when the Huskies and Pirates played earlier this season. Shawn Williams is the 3-point specialist, and their only threat from deep, but it’s the only dimension of his game.
Their defense has more versatility to it, but it’s mostly Barkley and the big men that do all the important work. Jabari Craig is still suspended for a violation of team rules (unlike UConn’s Eric Cobb, who returned from his suspension in the loss to Tulsa), but the Pirates can get important defensive contributions from Dimitri Spasojevic, a Serbian freshman who’s displayed two-way potential, and Nigerian newcomer Usman Haruna, who seemingly either makes the stop or commits a foul on every possession.
As a team, they display a decent ability to score on the inside, but lack the chemistry and talent to see consistent looks close to the basket; as a result, they often have to fall back on their 3-point shooting, which at 29.1 percent is one of the worst in the nation. They have a shallow rotation, so they don’t foul often, and they rarely get to the line either, preferring to shy away from contact and physical play. They rarely pursue steals and turnovers either.
The gameplan for the Huskies is pretty simple, then: don’t let them score. UConn should play a tightly-packed defense that lets East Carolina take outside jump shots while preventing them from getting looks at the rim or from midrange. The 2-3 zone that Ollie has occasionally experimented with could be put to good use against the Pirates.
Fans might not see as much of Terry Larrier as they’re used to this afternoon, as his skill-set doesn’t exploit any matchups against the Pirates, and it’s important to ensure a limited number of defensive lapses. The Adams-Christian Vital-Antwoine Anderson backcourt trio would be more difficult for the Pirates to handle, as would the Carlton-Isaiah Whaley forward combo that the Huskies have used to great effect lately.
Going on the road to face an opponent that nearly upset you at home is never an easy proposition for any team, but UConn’s problems in the prior contest shouldn’t reoccur in the rematch. As long as the highest-volume players don’t have similarly anomalous performances this afternoon, the Huskies should be able to take home a win.
PREDICTION: UConn 62, East Carolina 54