Following a hard-fought loss to UCF without the help of standout guard Alterique Gilbert, UConn returns home to Connecticut for a matchup against a struggling East Carolina side Sunday afternoon.
The Huskies (12-9, 3-5 American) weren’t able to complete a comeback effort after digging a big hole in the first half on Thursday night. Their second-half play was among the best basketball the inconsistent team has shown all season, but the story of the game was how the weak moments sank them.
With or without Gilbert—whose status for the game is still unknown—Dan Hurley’s priorities will be on getting his team to stay disciplined on both sides of the ball. The Huskies’ main problems in losses have been turnovers and foul trouble, both of which recurred in Thursday’s loss after a three-game stretch of improvement. They’ll be hoping the improvement is real and the poor play was merely a blip when they face the Pirates, a team that will provide them with many opportunities to play at its best.
East Carolina (9-11, 2-6 AAC) is one of the weakest teams in the American Athletic Conference, and in Joe Dooley’s first season back as head coach, the Pirates haven’t shown much progress. What development they have shown is largely due to two reasons. One is that the team was awful last season. The other is the unexpected breakout of freshman Jayden Gardner.
Gardner, at a stocky but athletic 6’6”, plays as a shorter power forward, leading the Pirates in both points and rebounds. All of his offense comes from the interior, where he’s shown a knack for being able to get his shot off against defenders of all sizes. He’s essentially their entire offense, which rates among the worst in the country, because there are no other scoring threats.
The team’s three-point shooting, at a paltry .261 rate, ranks 352nd in Division I. Turnovers are frequent, ball movement is stifled, and everyone except Gardner gets less effective the more they’re asked to do. With a roster full of one-dimensional offensive players, the Pirates don’t have a lot of ways to keep up with their opponents’ scoring.
Providing them with a little help is a solid though unspectacular defense. Sixth man Seth LeDay is the focal point on that end, adding versatility to a roster in desperate need of it. The Pirates understand team concepts around the perimeter, forcing opponents into tougher shots, and their aggressive style leads to a good amount of steals.
The problem becomes when the Pirates turn the ball over more often than they take it away, which happens more frequently than not. This, more than anything else, destroys the team’s ability to make a dent in the scoreboard.
The Pirates have been underperforming all year, which means a breakout could come suddenly and without warning. The Huskies will have to make sure it doesn’t happen on Sunday. Focus will be their focus; UConn will be able to assert its will against the less-talented East Carolina, and the Huskies would benefit from sticking to the gameplan.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: Against a perimeter-oriented defense, how are the Huskies and their guard-centric offense scoring points? Are Jalen Adams and Christian Vital pulling up more from outside, or getting creative to get the ball inside, or dumping the ball in to a mismatched Josh Carlton?
When East Carolina has the ball: Who do the Huskies put on Gardner? And how often do they double-team? Against a predictable offense, are the Huskies more aggressive or more passive (either of which could be viable strategies)?
How to watch
Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network