With two-straight wins behind them and the results finally starting to reflect their quality of play, the Huskies conclude a short-lived conference rivalry when UConn travels to Texas to face Southern Methodist Wednesday night.
UConn (13-10, 4-6 AAC) squeaked by Cincinnati in overtime on Sunday, but an impressive performance from James Bouknight and another strong team-wide defensive effort carried the Huskies to victory. Bouknight, the reigning AAC Player of the Week, may be the team’s new No. 1 option on offense, but Christian Vital will still lead the Huskies’ rapidly-improving defense. There are still some kinks to work out, but the team looks much better than it had even a few week ago.
Meanwhile, one could argue that SMU (16-6, 6-4) has looked quite the opposite. While the Mustangs’ record alone is far more impressive, they haven’t played the same caliber of opponents as the Huskies have, and have suffered losses against both Temple and East Carolina and beaten just one opponent ranked in the top half of the American Athletic Conference.
While the Mustangs have plenty of firepower on offense, including two excellent outside shooters and two consistent inside scorers, their defense leaves a lot to be desired. They take care of the ball, hit their free throws, score inside on a regular basis, and display good ball movement, as coach Tim Jankovich has always instilled.
But on the other end of the ball, they allow penetration far too frequently, don’t get a hand up on shooters, and generally don’t seem to understand how to defend an offense like their own. SMU’s 3-point percentage in conference play is 36.1 percent, good for first in the conference. SMU also allows a 37.3 percent 3-point percentage. The best 3-point shooting team in the AAC has so far been “whoever plays SMU.”
This isn’t to say they have no defense, and some credit should be given to Isiaha Mike for being the team’s best all-around player. The junior wing is the team’s best shooter and can provide some matchup issues at a springy 6-foot-8. Sophomore Feron Hunt is more of a traditional big man, a solid rebounder who can block some shots, and has converted a team-high 63 percent of his shots from inside the arc.
Point guard and leading scorer Kendric Davis will have the ball in his hands most often, though he’s much more of a drive-and-dish threat than an outside shooter, and Tyson Jolly has a balanced offensive game to complement his teammates.
SMU plays no seniors, which is good for a UConn team increasingly relying on its youngsters, and they struggle on defense, which is also good for this young UConn team. The Mustangs’ vulnerability to passing and penetration could create better opportunities for Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney, who have both looked good but have yet to show Alterique Gilbert’s knack for getting into the lane. Bouknight is a better finisher, however, and Gaffney has made good decisions under pressure, so SMU’s defensive lapses should benefit the two freshman guards. On the inside, Jankovich doesn’t have a lot of depth beyond Hunt, which means Josh Carlton will get some opportunities for easy offense as well.
The Huskies have not played well on the road in-conference just yet, but with these advantages, they’ll have the opportunity to get a much-needed win before taking on Memphis.
Prediction: It won’t be easy, but behind another impressive Bouknight game and Vital shutting down Davis at the point of attack (not to mention Akok Akok swatting away shots from the inside), the Huskies build on their improvements to take down a streaky SMU side. 68-61, UConn. My predicted score is as good a time as any to mention that SMU plays at the slowest pace in the AAC.
HOW TO WATCH
Where: Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network