Following another road loss, the Huskies hope to break a six-game losing streak at home when UConn hosts South Florida at Gampel Pavilion today at noon.
UConn (13-15, 4-11 American) has rallied in most of its games since the dual injuries to both Alterique Gilbert and Jalen Adams, but hasn’t been able to end up on the winning end of any of the close contests. Gilbert has returned to action, albeit not yet at 100 percent, and has provided the spark the team needs to stay competitive, though a win itself has remained elusive.
South Florida (18-10, 7-8 AAC) hasn’t been that much more impressive as of late, dropping four of its last five games, but is on pace for its best record since 1992, exemplifying the quick turnaround the program has shown since Brian Gregory took over as head coach. The much-improved Bulls beat a healthy UConn side on Jan. 2, and have been getting a lot of mileage out of their impressive defense despite limited offensive upside.
The Bulls’ effectiveness comes from the back line, where underclassmen big men Alexis Yetna and Michael Durr lead a physical defense that swarms ballhandlers and creates turnovers. It also leads to a lot of fouls, which UConn must take advantage of, but a legitimate nine-man rotation ensures USF’s best players rarely foul out.
While the aggressive, team-oriented style of defense puts a lot of pressure on opponents, especially ones with limited ballhandlers or shooters, the underlying numbers suggest the Bulls’ defense might not be quite as good as it looks. A lot of its productivity has come on the backs of shots that just didn’t go in, rather than specifically forcing bad shots.
That’s where UConn’s shooting ability needs to come into play. The Bulls are physical, but can be beaten by drawing them away from the basket, and Dan Hurley has been experimenting with lineups that feature four shooters—sometimes five shooters if Eric Cobb is at center, but he regrettably hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer since November. Weakside action and creative passing can break the USF defense, and Gilbert’s return to the court means the starting lineup will have both of those skills in one player.
The USF offense is easier to stop, in the sense that they’re not always trying to score. Taking a cue from James Harden, the Bulls are often more interested in getting fouled than getting off an open shot, and lead Division I in free throw attempts despite playing at a slower than average pace. By percentage, they struggle from the line, converting only 63.7 percent of their attempts, but they attempt so many free throws that the percentage rarely matters; they typically have the advantage at the line no matter what.
When not shooting free throws, the offense can be mighty inefficient, as David Collins and Laquincy Rideau, the two leading scorers, combine to average 20 points on 22 shots per game. Since the other players around them have defined roles, Collins and Rideau are the de facto offensive leaders, and that approach doesn’t necessarily work from the floor. USF might actually need to take 28 free throws a game in order to outscore opponents, even with a strong defense.
The Huskies’ conference wins have all come at home, and beating an overachieving South Florida team could boost their morale as the regular season comes to a finish. If UConn can avoid the same frustrations it felt in the January loss, the Huskies will have a chance to get their first victory in a while.
What to look for
When UConn has the ball: How is Gilbert deployed? Does Christian Vital spend more time off-ball, as the weaker ballhandler of the lead guards? Will Tyler Polley (15-28 from three in the last five games) continue to stay red hot—and if not, can another role player step up and bury some outside shots?
When South Florida has the ball: The guards don’t have any trouble getting clean shots off—does one of them get hot? Can the intense UConn defense stay disciplined enough to force USF to take shots from the floor, rather than looking for a foul?
How to watch
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, CT
When: 12 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network