With nearly two weeks’ rest behind them, the UConn men’s basketball team begins conference play tonight with a game against longtime patsy USF.
Dan Hurley’s squad suffered a brutal loss to Villanova at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 22, but the first-year coach is hopeful for his first intra-American Athletic Conference win. The Huskies (9-4) went only 7-11 in AAC play last season, a record they’re likely to improve upon this year.
That likelihood is only increased against USF, which has defeated UConn only twice in 21 tries. The Huskies’ .905 winning percentage against the Bulls is their second-best rate against any current or former conference opponent and a UConn win would tie USF with DePaul for futility among conference rivals.
The Bulls may be 10-2 this season, but don’t let the record fool you; they’ve played weak opponents almost exclusively so far, with one major-conference game against Georgetown, which the Bulls lost. They’ve regained some respectability in Brian Gregory’s second year helming the bench, already winning as many games this season as they did last season, but the USF offense has remained as bad as ever.
Luckily for the Bulls, they do have a couple shooters in junior point guard Laquincy Rideau and sophomore swingman Justin Brown. Outside of those two, the offense comes in inefficient bunches, as the team struggles to find easy baskets from any other sources.
Interior scoring is a weak point, but most notable is their deficiency from the free throw line, where the team’s .625 percentage is among the worst in the nation. Their offensive style may reward them with a lot of free throw attempts, but that’s designed to get weaker, shallower teams in foul trouble and is unlikely to be productive against higher-caliber opponents such as the Huskies.
Suffice to say, there isn’t much point in attempting a lot of free throws if so few of them are converted. The Bulls get most points per shot from beyond the arc, and get the fewest points per shot from the free throw line. The Bulls have taken over a hundred more shots from the free throw line than they have from beyond the arc. The Bulls do not have an efficient offense.
Their defense is much better, of course, and not just because it would hard for the defense to be as bad. If Brian Gregory wanted to, he could run a defensive lineup as good as any in the conference, with multiple good defensive options at every position.
Freshman center Michael Durr has already been a standout on the defensive end, though he may struggle to adjust to conference play, and he’s flanked by stocky sophomore Alexis Yetna at the four. Antun Maricevic comes off the bench to provide rim protection, and Rideau—maybe USF’s only quality two-way player in the last half-decade—is a stopper around the perimeter.
USF is much better this year than it has been recently, but exactly how much better the team is can only be revealed in conference play. You could just as easily replace “USF” with “UConn” in that previous sentence, though obviously to different levels—while the Bulls are fighting to get out of the AAC’s basement, the Huskies are hunting for a bubble spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Without a lot on the Huskies’ resume so far, they’ll have to create their tournament case through conference play. UConn does not have a bad loss so far—though a loss to South Florida would certainly qualify—and needs to build a winning streak against the conference’s weaker teams.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: Does Eric Cobb get involved, after sitting out against Villanova? Did Sidney Wilson get adjusted to the team’s style of play during the winter break? Do we start to see any regression from the team’s three players (Alterique Gilbert, Christian Vital, Tyler Polley) shooting .400 from three? Does South Florida’s size (two seven-foot players) pose a problem to UConn’s big men?
When South Florida has the ball: Does leading scorer David Collins finally return to last season’s form, or is the expanded role too much for him to handle just yet? Is the horrific free-throw percentage just an unfortunate string of bad luck, or a genuine weakness that could continue for the rest of the season? Does South Florida’s size (two seven-foot players) pose a problem to UConn’s big men, but this time on defense?
How to watch
Where: Tampa, FL
When: 8:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network