After nearly taking out Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and the rest of the 2018-19 Duke Blue Devils team in the NCAA tournament last spring, things haven’t come easy for UCF and its head coach, Johnny Dawkins this year. The Knights used a weak opening schedule to jump out to a 9-2 record, winning six in a row heading into a matchup with Oklahoma.
But from there, it was all downhill.
Immediately after winning six-straight, UCF dropped five-straight, falling at 9-7 after taking on higher quality competition in the Sooners, Houston, and Cincinnati, to name a few. Since that five-game losing streak, UCF is 5-5 in their last 10 games and heads to Hartford one last time fresh off of a 75-74 home loss to Tulane on Saturday.
UConn, meanwhile, is playing relatively well since losing starter Akok Akok in the first minute of the Huskies’ win over Memphis. If you count the win over the Tigers, UConn is 2-1 without its standout freshman shotblocker, largely thanks to the emergence of junior Isaiah Whaley.
Whaley has stepped into Akok’s starting spot and basically pulled off the best Akok impersonation on the planet, averaging 13 points, 9.5 rebounds and three blocks in his first two starts since his freshman season. While Whaley has always been a high-motor stalwart on defense and on the boards, his emergence as a competent offensive piece has been crucial to keeping this offense chugging along to do just enough to eke out wins.
While Whaley already proved he can hang with some solid big men in Memphis’ Precious Achiuwa and USF’s Michael Durr, he and Josh Carlton will have another tall task in containing UCF big man Collin Smith. The 6-foot-11 junior leads the Knights in scoring at 12.5 points per game and just posted a 16-point, 13-rebound double-double with three assists, two blocks and three steals.
Smith is without a doubt the focal point of this UCF offense, and Whaley and Carlton will need to stay out of foul trouble as they try to keep Smith, one of the conference’s best offensive rebounders, off the boards. In his last two games, Smith has nine offensive boards, and isn’t afraid to try and stretch out opponents either, attempting three 3-pointers in that span — though he’s made none.
For UConn, the offense will continue to require big-time performances from guards Christian Vital and James Bouknight in order to finish the season strong and attempt a deep conference tournament run.
Vital put together one of his best performances of his senior season on Sunday against USF, scoring 24 points with six rebounds and hitting four of nine 3-point attempts. His performance was only bested by Bouknight, who scored 19 points in just 16 minutes due to first-half foul trouble. The freshman once again came alive in the final 20 minutes, hitting basket after basket down the stretch to help the Huskies avenge an ugly loss to USF in Tampa at the beginning of conference play with a convincing 78-71 victory.
As long as Vital and Bouknight can contribute consistently, the Huskies don’t necessarily need too much on offense from the likes of Carlton, Whaley, Jalen Gaffney, and Alterique Gilbert. If the frontcourt can rebound effectively against Smith for easy layups and the Gaffney and Gilbert can either find players for easy baskets or hit shots with the shot clock winding down, the Huskies shouldn’t have too much trouble with a UCF team that isn’t really very good at anything other than having some size.
While the Knights’ big guards like Tony Johnson, Darin Green and Matt Millon might pose some problems at times, only Green poses a legitimate problem, shooting nearly 40 percent with over 130 attempts from deep but is otherwise seldom used in Dawkins’ offense.
Prediction: Vital and Bouknight once again carry this team offensively with Whaley and Carlton chipping in on offense while keeping Smith in check. Gaffney continues his tremendous growth this season with another steady performance, and Whaley does enough on both ends to give him a late but legitimate run at Most Improved Player honors in the American. UConn 72, UCF 60 in the hardwood ConFLiCT.
HOW TO WATCH
Where: XL Center, Hartford, Connecticut
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network