The UConn Huskies are shorthanded heading into their Sunday afternoon game against Memphis in the first matchup between two high-profile first-year coaches.
Dan Hurley’s Huskies (13-10, 4-6 American) have been without Alterique Gilbert for the past few games, and it got even worse news this week when an MRI revealed they will be without Jalen Adams for upwards of a month.
Without two of its top three scorers, UConn has found itself in an unenviable position, but not one that lacks all optimism. After an initial rough adjustment, the Huskies played well in the second half against a tough Temple team, but not well enough to narrow the gap. The question for today’s game will be which half represents the true UConn team without Adams and Gilbert—was it simply a difficult adjustment that took time to solve, or did Temple take it easy in the second half?
Regardless of the answer, which will be answered one way or another by the final buzzer, the Huskies do have two players who have stepped up to fill in the blanks. Christian Vital has raised his game since Gilbert’s injury, and even before then—in his last five games, the junior guard is averaging 17.6 points on .615/.483 shooting, with 7.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals, and only 1.4 turnovers. Although it’s only occurred over a small portion of the season, Vital’s last five games rival the best individual stretches in UConn history.
In the frontcourt, Josh Carlton has performed nearly as well over the same run, averaging a double-double with 14.2 points per game (which includes a 20-point game and two 18-pointers) and 10.8 rebounds. Carlton’s quiet defensive excellence has been the only thing mooring down the struggling, shorthanded Huskies defense.
Not only does Gilbert’s injury rob the Huskies of his defensive ability, but losing both him and Adams forces the Huskies into slipshod, improvised defensive lineups; the team is not deep and, when missing two lead guards, is not versatile. Carlton and Vital have been doing their all on both ends to ensure the drop-off isn’t too dramatic.
Memphis (13-10, 5-5 AAC), on the other hand, has been steadily improving after an unimpressive start. While the Tigers don’t have many impressive wins (their best win, by a lot, was a home victory over UCF), they’ve been playing much better than their non-conference performance would indicate.
Taking the opposite tact from many American Athletic Conference teams, the Tigers push the ball forward quickly and constantly, playing at the sixth-fastest pace in Division I. The key to the offense is point guard Jeremiah Martin, in ways both good and bad. The good is that he can score at the rim and from outside, creating opportunities for his teammates in the process. The bad is that he’s often just as likely to turn the ball over than pass for an assist. The Tigers have 364 assists this season. They also have 358 turnovers.
Nonetheless, the offense is hard to stop, both because of its unique—for this conference—structure and the Tigers’ offensive talent. Stretch-four (sometimes stretch-five) Kyvon Davenport is a threat from outside, though one of the only reliable options from deep, and a pair of guards in Kareem Brewton Jr. and Raynere Thornton can take the ball to the rim.
Transition play is the crux of the Memphis offense, as the Tigers are far more effective there than they are in the half-court. If the Huskies can slow down the Tigers’ preferred speed, UConn will have a good chance to win.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: Can Vital and Carlton—and perhaps more importantly, Tarin Smith—keep up the level of play they showed in the absence of two starting guards? Will a bench player not named Eric Cobb step up and capably fill a role player spot? Does Hurley try to go big by playing Carlton and Cobb together against another small team?
When Memphis has the ball: Does the UConn defense get more conservative and stack the interior against a weak shooting team that likes to play in transition? Does Hurley have the personnel he needs to combat a different-style Memphis offense?
How to watch
Where: Memphis, TN
When: 2 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network