Following a brutal loss at USF, UConn men’s basketball hopes to end a two-game losing streak when the Huskies face UCF at the XL Center in Hartford on Saturday.
Dan Hurley’s squad lost a physical contest in Tampa on Wednesday night, and now the Huskies must face the tougher of the two Floridian opponents in the American Athletic Conference, although this time they’ll have the benefit of the home-court advantage. UConn (9-5, 0-1 AAC) fell outside the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin for the first time since the season began, and the team will have to become more consistent to get back into the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation.
Central Florida (11-2, 1-0), meanwhile, is hoping this is finally the season that takes the Knights to their first NCAA Tournament since 2005. It’s looking so far as if their Big Dance dream might come true; UCF’s two losses are by a combined three points (one in overtime, no less), and has a win over a major-conference opponent (Alabama, who will be fighting for an at-large bid too).
More importantly, this is the year the Knights’ play has finally come together cohesively. Poor offensive play and injuries essentially killed their chances of a postseason bid in the previous two seasons, but neither have been a problem in 2018-19. B.J. Taylor and Tacko Fall, the team’s two best players, have played every game this season after being limited to no more than 16 each last year.
That health has contributed to create an offense that seems to have shed the issues plaguing the Knights in recent years. Their starters finally threaten opponents from three—right now it’s mostly Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins, but that’s enough—and they’ve figured out ways to get easier baskets on the interior. Of course, part of that is as easy as getting the ball to the 7-foot-6 Fall, who’s currently shooting .797 from the floor as part of his record-setting field goal percentages, but every shot Fall takes is more likely than anyone else’s to go in.
Meanwhile, the team spreads the ball around, with a decent but unspectacular assist rate, but how they do so is a vital part of the Knights’ success. A passive, conservative offense might not entertain casual fans, and their turgid pace might not excite anyone, but their lack of turnovers has carried them to wins all season. Chalk it up to Johnny Dawkins finally finding a winning formula; although the former Stanford coach is well above .500 for his career, he has only one NCAA Tournament appearance to his resume. That number has a good chance of doubling this March.
With a disciplined, smart defense opposing them, the Huskies will have their work cut out for them again. Avoiding a repetition of Wednesday night’s mistakes is an imperative, as UConn will have to stay out of foul trouble and control the ball in order to beat UCF. Avoiding an 0-2 start to conference play, of course, is just as important.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: Does the offense try to avoid turnovers by getting more conservative, or just moving the ball smarter? After a tale of two halves games on Wednesday, does Jalen Adams get as much time on the ball in the second half today? How does the team draw Fall away from the basket? Does Wednesday night’s poor three-point shooting turn into a team-wide slump?
When UCF has the ball: How do the Huskies prevent Fall from getting easy baskets—and who guards him? Did UConn learn anything from playing a team that tries only to draw fouls, and can they apply that knowledge to a more skilled team playing a similar style? What weak points does the Knights offense attack?
How to watch
Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network