After a weeklong rest, Dan Hurley’s injury-shortened squad returns to the court tonight against SMU in a game that both teams desperately need to win.
The Huskies, still without starting guards Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert, have gone 3-6 since beating the Mustangs on January 10, indicative of a young, fatigued team still trying to figure out how to play without two top players. The Mustangs, meanwhile, have won only one of their last eight contests, a mark that seems near-impossible for a team once thought to be competing for an NCAA Tournament bid.
UConn (13-12, 4-8 American) has been getting better play from a group of young players suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into much bigger roles. While the seven-man rotation has taken its toll on the team, Hurley has been figuring out how to deploy the remaining group in effective ways, and the team is hoping the week of rest will eliminate the fatigue it’s been experiencing late in games.
SMU (12-12, 4-8 AAC), meanwhile, has injury problems of its own, with standout guard Jarrey Foster sitting out for over a month. While the Mustangs can score, aided by coach Tim Jankovich’s offensive expertise, they have been struggling on defense in Foster’s absence.
Without a cohesive rotation along the perimeter, the Mustangs allow a lot of shots from three, and allow opponents to convert them. This is where the injuries to Adams and Gilbert hurt the Huskies, as both players are threats to score from outside. Nonetheless, the Mustangs lack an interior defensive presence—their best defender is point guard Jimmy Whitt—and often struggle to clean up the defensive glass, which means Josh Carlton may be counted upon to have a big game. Jankovich’s best option to stop the UConn big man may be freshman Feron Hunt, who has shown potential but still has a lot to figure out at this level.
SMU’s bread-and-butter is on the offensive end, though, where the team scores points in unconventional ways. The team doesn’t have many options from outside—Isiaha Mike is a 3-point specialist and top scorer Jahmal McMurray is solid anywhere, but that’s about it—and they draw very few fouls. What the Mustangs are is a passive-aggressive team. Their ball movement is passive, relying upon individual talent to score each point, and caring little about spacing. Their movement to the inside and reactions after the shot are very aggressive, crashing the offensive boards full-force on seemingly every attempt.
The Mustangs run another polaric offense, in keeping with the apparent AAC house style, that consists of a lot of one element and seemingly none of another. Would it surprise you to know they also play at a very slow pace? The Huskies, at this point, are used to competing against unbalanced offenses, and if nothing else, should have little trouble adjusting to the opponent.
While UConn is still hoping for Adams and Gilbert to return, the Huskies’ play—though not their results—have given reasons to be optimistic. Beating a struggling team, one in search of a turnaround, on the road would be another good sign.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: Do the Huskies start off by feeding the mismatch with Carlton in the post, or do they try to establish the three early to give him some room to work with? Can one of the new starters, be it Tarin Smith or Sidney Wilson, prove themselves to be an outside threat? Does Tyler Polley continue his streak of aggressiveness, which has occasionally provided a spark for the Huskies?
When SMU has the ball: Do the Mustangs try to take advantage of UConn’s short rotation with increased passing, or do they attack like normal? Do they try to draw more fouls against a team without many backups? If Christian Vital shuts down McMurray in the halfcourt, how do they involve other players in the offense?
How to watch
Where: Moody Coliseum, Dallas, TX
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network