UConn can extend its winning streak to three and reach .500 in conference play with a victory, as the Huskies take on the UCF Knights in a road contest tonight.
The Huskies (12-8, 3-4 American) have won two straight in convincing fashion, turning aside Tulane and Wichita State, and have the chance to break even in a disappointing January slate. Their losing streak was caused by three problem areas—fouls, turnovers, and three-point percentage—but those issues appear to be taken care of, having reversed the negative trends over the last three games.
UCF (15-4, 5-2 AAC), meanwhile, has pulled itself into at least a bubble position, having played well all season. The Knights look like a much more well-rounded team than in previous years, when they relied on the massive frame of Tacko Fall to lead a one-dimensional defensive effort, and are now among the most balanced teams in the American Athletic Conference.
Fall is still the focal point, however, and his interior defensive presence and scoring ease make him a natural centerpiece. His defensive stats, both traditional and advanced metrics, rank among the best in the country, and his field-goal percentage is threatening to break the Division I record. He’s not a player that creates his own shot, and his offensive skillset is quite limited, but the only issue is getting him the ball; when he gets it, he scores.
Johnny Dawkins doesn’t need his superstar center to score 15 points a game (although the 9.8 he’s averaging are perfectly fine with the Knights’ three-year coach), now that he’s got a pair of talented backcourt players doing just that. His son Aubrey Dawkins, finally healthy, is a steady small forward without many weaknesses, and B.J. Taylor, also recovered from injury concerns, is a steady scoring force.
Dawkins and Taylor are the two scoring threats, though intelligent point guard Terrell Allen can’t be left open, and that’s seemingly all the Central Florida offense needs. They’re not a great jump-shooting team, but excellent ball control allows them to be very aggressive, for which they’re rewarded with a lot of free throws. The Knights rarely turn the ball over or foul, allowing them to take advantage of less-disciplined teams. Their rotation is nine deep, and everyone who sees the floor can play, and they typically force other teams to go to their bench early and often.
That could spell disaster for a team like the Huskies, who just broke a streak of high-foul games and can’t afford a relapse. With a season-ending injury to Kassoum Yakwe and Alterique Gilbert being described as day-to-day, the Huskies’ lineup is shallower than it was at the start of the year. If Dan Hurley can trust backup big men Isaiah Whaley and the recently-returned Mamadou Diarra, it might not matter if Josh Carlton and Eric Cobb both pick up two fouls in the first half again—a stat that has occurred several times this season.
What is important for the Huskies is limiting the Knights’ opportunities. UCF isn’t a great rebounding team (UConn held them to zero offensive rebounds in their first matchup this season), and Fall can be taken off the boards by a good gameplan. Furthermore, they’ll have to make sure their fouls are spent on limiting Fall with the ball in his hands (.277 free-throw percentage) and not bailing out wild drives from Taylor or Dawkins, both good free-throw shooters.
The Huskies are currently a better team than they were at the beginning of January, when they lost to the Knights in an unusually weak showing from the UConn backcourt. That doesn’t mean they’re currently better than the Knights, however, and that’s what we’ll find out tonight when the teams take the court.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: If Gilbert plays, will he be able to score over and around Fall on the interior? Can Jalen Adams reverse his performance from the previous matchup (2-10 from the floor) and give the Huskies a better scoring rate this time around? Is Eric Cobb used as a pivot man in the inside, drawing Fall’s attention away from the basket, while utilizing Cobb’s passing ability?
When UCF has the ball: Can Gilbert and Christian Vital—and Cobb and Josh Carlton behind them—stay more disciplined on defense to limit the fouls? Which of Whaley and Diarra becomes the third center? Is Sidney Wilson asserting himself on defense the way he can against weaker teams?
How to watch
Where: CFE Arena, Orlando, FL
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network
The UConn Blog is hosting a watch-party for the women’s basketball game vs Louisville as well as the men’s basketball team’s battle against UCF at the Tavern Downtown in Hartford. Admission is free and all are welcome.