What’s the quickest way to bounce out of the top 25? Give away a game to a 7-7 St. John’s team that’s 81st in KenPom. What’s the quickest way to sneak back into the top 25? Take down a #11 Creighton squad that’s #15 in KenPom.
UConn men’s basketball (7-2) will look to do just that tomorrow at noon when the Huskies head to Omaha, Nebraska to take on the Creighton Blue Jays (10-4).
How to watch and listen
When: 12:00 p.m. Eastern
Radio: UConn Sports Network
What to know:
Line: Creighton -6.5, O/U 137.5
KenPom Predicted Score: Creighton 71, UConn 66
The first time the two teams met —both this season and all-time — we were treated to an instant classic, despite UConn ultimately falling short in overtime, 74-76. We learned a lot from that game; it was UConn’s first tilt in two-and-a-half weeks after the program had to pause due to COVID-19 interruptions. Yet the rusty Huskies put forth an impressive effort, spearheaded by a career-high 40 points from star sophomore James Bouknight. It was a coming-out party of sorts for Bouknight on the national stage. And it showed that UConn was ready to challenge the upper echelon in the Big East right away.
We also learned back in December about the character of point guard RJ Cole and were treated to more glimpses from freshman Adama Sanogo as well.
For tomorrow, UConn will be without Bouknight as he recovers from elbow surgery. But senior sniper Tyler Polley, who missed the first tilt due to COVID protocols, is back.
In Bouknight’s absence, UConn has gone 2-1, with junior Tyrese Martin chipping in 11 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Polley and Cole are also averaging double figures, while senior big man Isaiah Whaley is third in the Big East in blocks. This core four will be heavily leaned on by head coach Dan Hurley as the Huskies look to extend their road winning streak to six games. So far this season, UConn leads the conference in scoring defense and offensive rebounding.
Creighton is hobbling home having lost to Butler and Providence last week. But the Blue Jays are 6-3 in the conference and are widely regarded as the second-best team in the Big East. They’re a balanced unit that leads the league in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense. The offense is paced by four double-digit scorers including Denzel Mahoney and Big East Preseason Player of the Year Marcus Zegarowski.
What to Watch For
When UConn has the ball
Coach Hurley must manufacture easy looks for Polley, who shot an uncommon 1-6 from three vs. the Red Storm. The senior unlocks that sweet floor spacing for the Huskies, opening up driving lanes for the likes of Martin, Cole, Brendan Adams, and Jalen Gaffney.
Free throws. Free throws. Free throws. Free throws.
UConn’s two losses have been by a combined six points, with the Huskies missing clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds of each setback.
Control the glass
Creighton is second-to-last in the conference in rebounding margin. The Huskies have more experience down low but ceded the rebounding margin in the first tilt thanks to 15 boards from Denzel Mahoney. Creighton is hyper-efficient on offense, so limited the number of second looks will keep UConn in the game.
When Creighton has the ball
RJ Cole did an outstanding job on Zegarowski in the first game, holding him to 4-14 from the field and 1-8 from three. He’ll need that same ball pressure that forced five turnovers, too. The Huskies forced 16 turnovers from Creighton in December, so that ball pressure will be paramount once again.
Put a body on the big men
Against Providence, Creighton’s rim-running bigs Christian Bishop and Ryan Kalkbrenner combined to shoot 9-for-9 from the field. Communication on screens and when shots go up will be critical in keeping Creighton from establishing any paint presence.
Identify the shooters (everyone)
It’s Creighton, and that means as modern an offense as you’ll find in the college game. Three Blue Jays occupy the Big East’s top 10 in threes made. Zegarowski and Mahoney are the 1-2 punch, but Mitchell Ballock also has no conscious and that’s dangerous because he’s never the focal point of an opposing team’s scouting report. The Blue Jays space the floor better than anyone in the league not named Villanova. Tracking shooters, talking through screens, and picking up in transition are all musts.
UConn was brought back down to earth vs. St. John’s. Can the Huskies regain the junkyard dog mentality they had seemingly established on their three-game road trip?
It took an otherworldly “holy crap” game from Bouknight to keep pace with Creighton last time out. While UConn’s supporting cast played well in their roles the first time, they really need to step outside their comfort zone tomorrow to pull off the upset.
Bouknight update: At his usual pregame availability, Hurley said that Bouknight now may not return for another 4-6 weeks from his elbow injury and corresponding surgery.
Hurley on Andre Jackson: "If he's pain free next week, you could then be seeing him at any point."— Mike Mavredakis (@MMavredakis) January 23, 2021
On Bouknight: "It could be anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks, just depending on how quickly he gets out there."
Final Score Prediction
UConn can survive without Bouknight, but beating one of the best in the country is a tall task on the road.
Final Score: Creighton 75, UConn 69