After two terrible performances to kick off the new year, the UConn men’s basketball team got back on track with a late-night win over Tulane at Gampel Wednesday night. While the Huskies were far from perfect, they looked much better against the Green Wave, largely thanks to a breakout performance from junior Tyler Polley, who lead the team with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Polley has consistently been one of UConn’s best offensive players this season, albeit with limited usage. He still leads the Huskies with a 127.5 offensive rating and is shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line. But against Tulane, it was tenacity on the boards that led to a career-high 11 rebounds and one of his best overall performances in his time at Storrs.
That makes his season-ending injury a tough pill to swallow for the Huskies. In order to make up for his absence, the Huskies will need quality performances from upperclassmen Josh Carlton, Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital. They’ll also need his replace - whether it be James Bouknight or Brendan Adams - to continue to be efficient as their minutes increase.
Within the next two weeks, UConn (10-5, 1-2 the American) will take on Wichita State at home, followed by Villanova and Houston on the road. All three of those teams are essentially top 30 teams in KenPom (Wichita State is No, 31), and while UConn is 1-0 against the KenPom top 30 this year after a win over Florida in November, this Huskies team is certainly struggling more than they were at the start of the season.
This three game stretch starting with the Shockers on Sunday could define the season; three straight games similar to Cincinnati/USF would firmly squash and solid conference or NCAA tournament aspirations. Three wins could vault the Huskies back into the conversation for a top-25 ranking. Something in between could build some sorely-needed momentum heading into the thick of conference play.
Wichita State comes to Hartford to play in front of what is expected to be a very full, if not sold out, XL Center. After a down season by Gregg Marshall’s standards at 22-15, the Shockers have bounced back nicely this season, getting off to a 14-1 start and suffering their lone loss to a solid West Virginia team in late November. They come to Hartford after picking up a 76-67 win over Memphis at home to get to 2-0 in conference play this season.
The bad news for UConn is that Wichita State is an excellent defensive team, one of the last things the Huskies want to deal with after sputtering offensively for parts of their last three games. The Shockers rank No. 17 in defense adjusted efficiency this season, and just two opponents - West Virginia and Oklahoma - have scored more than 70 points against them so far this season. For UConn to win on the road, they’ll need to get as many easy looks as possible, which likely means getting out in transition and letting Gilbert, Vital or James Bouknight finish the fast break.
Offensively, the Shockers are led by Erik Stevenson, who averages 13.9 points per game and shoots over 36 percent from three. Outside of Stevenson, Jamarius Burton averages nearly 11 points and four assists per game, and has the mold of the type of guard that has given the Huskies’ front court fits all season at 6-foot-4. Burton and Tyson Etienne serve as two formidable 3-point threats for the Shockers, shooting 46,4 percent and 43.4 percent from deep respectively.
Sophomore Dexter Dennis, a member of last season’s AAC All-Freshman team, returned to the rotation after a three-game leave of absence and has played in the Shockers’ last two games and scored eight points in 26 minutes in the win over Memphis on Thursday.
Prediction: Talent-wise, UConn has enough to hang with and even beat the Shockers, especially in front of a raucous home crowd. But this Huskies team hasn’t played a truly solid game so far in 2020, and likely won’t be able to put enough stretches of quality offense together to get the W. Wichita State 68, UConn 61.
HOW TO WATCH
Where: XL Center, Hartford, Connecticut
When: 12 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network
Tickets (via StubHub): Available for $6