Concluding a short-standing conference rivalry that featured no memorable games or moments that fans of both teams would probably rather just forget, UConn men’s basketball has its final regular season game with East Carolina this afternoon.
The Huskies (16-12, 7-8 AAC) are looking to cap off a strong February with a win over the 11th place Pirates (11-18, 5-11). UConn’s month was marred by the season-ending injury to Akok Akok, but the emergence of Isaiah Whaley in his place has solidified the frontcourt. Whaley, who averaged 3.8 minutes per game as a sophomore, scored a career-high 18 points in two of the last three games, and his emergence as an excellent defender in space has essentially saved the Huskies’ season.
However, UConn is down to just seven scholarship players after Sid Wilson was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. That leaves the Huskies with just Alterique Gilbert and Brendan Adams coming off the bench, which will force Adams to take on an even larger role as an undersized big if foul trouble hits.
While UConn is not in any position to make the NCAA Tournament as a bubble team, Dan Hurley’s squad can help itself with a favorable seeding in the upcoming AAC Tournament. The Huskies currently sit in 7th place, only a game behind Memphis, which has games remaining against Wichita State and Houston.
In order to surpass the Tigers, the Huskies will have to take care of business in its remaining games, beginning with tonight’s matchup with the Pirates. The Pirates have made some progress in the second year of Joe Dooley’s return to Greenville, due to their addition of experienced junior college transfers and the strong play of sophomore Jayden Gardner. Gardner’s 20.1 points per game rank first in the conference, nearly four points more than the second-highest scorer. At a beefy 6-foot-7, Gardner can get rebounds and play some defense too.
Gardner is their primary and secondary scoring option, with second-leading scorer Tristen Newton appearing as more of a tertiary possibility. The Pirates attack the basket first and foremost, and rank among the nation’s worst three-point scorers, only making 156 treys on the year and shooting .283 from beyond the arc. They’re not particularly great at converting on the inside, but their experience and reckless abandon allow them to get to the free throw line pretty frequently. With only seven scholarship players available, the Huskies can’t afford to get into foul trouble against a team that will be looking to exploit this rotational disadvantage.
The Pirates are a bit better on the defensive end, and 7-foot freshman Charles Coleman is already a solid post defender, helping to make their defensive frontcourt fairly effective. They’ve got a sizable load to manage though, as their perimeter defenders allow penetration pretty frequently. That’s good news for Whaley, who has been productive with his face to the basket on the interior, and even better news for James Bouknight and Christian Vital, who have both been on fire lately.
Over the past three games, Vital has averaged 21 points and 3.3 steals on .450 shooting from deep. Bouknight hasn’t been scoring 20 points like he did earlier in the season, but during the past three games, he’s made exactly half of his shots from both inside and outside, and picked up some rebounding tips from the senior Vital, grabbing five boards per game over that span.
Prediction: With so many of UConn’s healthy athletes playing their best basketball of the season lately, they’re in good position to topple a weaker opponent. But East Carolina does present some challenges to the team in its current state, and a close game wouldn’t be surprising, given UConn’s 1-7 record on the road. Nonetheless, this should not be a game the Huskies lose. UConn 78, East Carolina 66.
How to watch
Where: Williams Arena, Greenville, NC
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network