After two-straight losses to the two members of the Floridian branch of the American Athletic Conference, UConn faces another tough test when Southern Methodist arrives in Storrs tonight.
The Huskies (9-6, 0-2 AAC) have struggled offensively in their last two defeats, as their shooting percentages dwindled to the well-below average rates of 28.6 percent from three and 39.4 percent from two. The shooting slump has clearly manifested in Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, both of whom have found no easy looks from inside the arc in conference play, and the normally-reliable Tyler Polley hasn’t gotten his outside shot to fall in the new year.
The SMU defense might be just what UConn needs to break its slump. The Mustangs (10-4, 2-0 AAC) struggle to rebound and are passive on defense, allowing opponents easy looks. Through the first 10 games of the year, SMU opponents were shooting 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, which sounds promising to a team of Huskies that need to reestablish their jumpers.
SMU doesn’t have many two-way players, and as a result, struggles to find a cohesive defense. Tim Jankovic, in his third full season as head coach, has nonetheless figured out how to make a winning team out of that roster construction. He’s comfortable asking players to play to their strengths and creating a team that balances out each player’s individual weaknesses.
So while the Mustangs may lack depth on one end of the floor, they make up for it on the other. Dynamic scorer Jahmal McMurray leads the effort as likely the best offensive player in the conference, and he’s helped by stretch-four Ethan Chargois—a versatile player with NBA size—and steady point guard Jimmy Whitt. Whitt might be the key to the entire team; his ball control and passing are what keeps the offense humming despite not having an array of shooters.
Because of that, Jankovic is able to run the style of offense he wants, one predicated on maximizing opportunities. The Mustangs rarely turn the ball over, pass well, and grab a lot of offensive rebounds. They also have one overarching priority on defense: don’t foul. That will probably be welcome to a UConn side that was essentially taken out of two-straight foulfests.
The other aspects of the team are less likely to be appealing to the Huskies. While it’s hard to say what aspects of an opposing team UConn is particularly vulnerable to, there is one thing in common to UConn’s losses so far—weakside 3-point shooting. McMurray and Chargois aren’t weakside shooters, since they’re the team’s offensive focal points, but the Huskies defenders will need to make sure they don’t loose the Mustangs guards on Whitt’s drives. Nat Dixon, a graduate transfer from Chattanooga, is exactly the type of player who could punish the Huskies with a couple well-timed shots from deep.
In facing a team as disciplined as the Mustangs, Dan Hurley will have to prepare his team to finally shed some more of its bad habits. Slumps are tricky to break out of, and often the only thing that ends them is time. Ending bad habits takes effort and work, and the Huskies have gotten close to turning themselves around. We’ll see how close they are to closing the gap by seeing the juxtaposition between their play and the Mustangs’ tonight.
What To Watch For:
When UConn has the ball: Does Polley’s usage change now that it’s clear he’s in a slump from outside? Can Christian Vital maintain his great start to conference play? How does the UConn guard trio handle a defense unlikely to regularly foul them on dribble-drives?
When SMU has the ball: How does Vital defend McMurray, in the toughest test of the season for the Huskies’ best perimeter defender? What happens to UConn’s centers against a team that doesn’t feature a lot of post scoring, and does Hurley adjust to SMU or try to force a mismatch? Does freshman forward Feron Hunt, playing great in limited opportunities, become a factor in tonight’s game?
How to watch
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
When: 7 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network