Heading into the Temple game, the odds were stacked against UConn. The Huskies were down to just seven scholarship players after Sidney Wilson and Alterique Gilbert were unavailable and had to go up against a quality Owls defense after losing four-straight close games.
The result? A surprising but encouraging blowout win over Temple, with UConn getting out ahead early and never looking back, stretching the lead to more than 20 multiple times throughout the game.
While it’s unclear but unlikely that the Huskies will have either Wilson or Gilbert once again, this shorthanded team will likely have more issues on the road against Memphis than they did at home against Temple. Even without consensus lottery pick James Wiseman, head coach and former Tigers booster Penny Hardaway has put together an impressive amount of raw talent that hasn’t totally lived up to the hype.
Although the Tigers are 15-5 overall, they’re just 4-3 in the American Athletic Conference with losses to Wichita State, SMU and a surprising 80-40 loss on the road to Tulsa. While losing Wiseman — who left the program instead of serving his NCAA-mandated suspension — certainly hasn’t helped, the Tigers still have more raw talent top to bottom than just about anyone in the American.
Precious Achiuwa, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, has been the Tigers’ best player in Wiseman’s absence. The Bronx native picked the Tigers over the Huskies this past May and ended up as the premiere option for Memphis, averaging 15.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game — all team highs.
Achiuwa is a legitimate inside-outside threat, shooting nearly 37 percent from deep and 54 percent on two point shots. While he’s struggled from the charity stripe this season (57 percent), he is without a doubt one of the nation’s best freshman and will be a major problem for the Huskies from start to finish.
UConn does have similar, albeit lesser version of Achiuwa in Akok Akok. He’ll likely be tasked with containing Achiuwa to the best of his abilities. If Akok can stay out of foul trouble, his shotblocking ability and length might be enough to throw Achiuwa off his game and slow him down.
Between Akok, Achiuwa and the rest of the Tigers and Huskies, expect a ton of blocked shots on both ends. UConn and Memphis rank third and fourth respectively in the country in block percentage, and the Tigers own a defense that ranks No. 16 in the country in defensive efficiency.
Hardaway’s Tigers do a great job of limiting easy shots in the paint and generating steals, and will likely try to take advantage of a young point guard on the road in Jalen Gaffney to force turnovers. While Gaffney was a “calming presence” in the win over Temple, he will have a tougher challenge ahead against a better, more athletic defense on the road. If he can handle the pressure and limit turnovers, the Huskies will have a chance to win their first road game of the season.
Outside of Achiuwa, the Tigers have a handful of talented freshmen that helped make up the nation’s top recruiting class in 2019. D.J. Jeffries, a 6-foot-7 forward and former 5-star recruit, is the only other Tiger in double figures and leads the team in 3-point percentage at 39 percent. Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge and Damion Baugh have also contributed throughout this season, but sophomore Alex Lomax has had the biggest impact outside of the Achiuwa and Jeffries. Lomax leads the team in assists and steals per game and has done a good job facilitating the offense this season.
Prediction: Even if UConn gets Wilson, Gilbert or both back in time for Saturday, it might not be enough. Achiuwa and the Tigers are likely too much to handle on the road, especially if this game shapes up to be a close one. The Huskies will have a better chance at taming the Tigers when they come to the XL Center later this month. Memphis 75, UConn 68.
How to watch
Where: FedEx Forum, Memphis, Tennessee
When: 1 p.m. ET
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network