After picking up two wins last week against bottom-tier D1 teams and climbing up another two spots in the polls, UConn men’s basketball heads down to Morgantown, West Virginia for its first true road game of the 2021-22 season as part of the Big East/Big 12 Battle.
The Huskies will be in a raucous environment and going up against a likely Hall of Fame coach in Bob Huggins, who is just a few wins shy of passing Jim Calhoun on the NCAA Division I career wins list.
UConn will be facing this challenge without starters Tyrese Martin and Adama Sanogo — the team’s two best rebounders — due to injury.
When: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m. ET
Where: WVU Coliseum - Morgantown, West Virginia
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: West Virginia -2, over/under 137
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 70, West Virginia 69
The trip to Morgantown gives UConn a real chance to add another quality win to its resume. The Huskies, now ranked No. 11 in NET, take on the No. 73-ranked Mountaineers on their home court, which makes this a quadrant one game.
While UConn probably has the edge in terms of talent when the teams are at full strength, the losses of Martin, an elite defender and rebounder, and Sanogo, the centerpiece of the team’s offense this season, level the playing field. Add in the fact that Dan Hurley and the Huskies will be playing on the road for the first time in what should be a packed WVU Coliseum, and it’s not crazy to think that this game may have an NCAA Tournament type of feel to it.
West Virginia ranks No. 48 in KenPom and is 7-1 on the season, with the only loss coming to Shaka Smart and Marquette in the semifinal of the Charleston Classic. The Mountaineers rebounded nicely from the loss picking up a marquee win with an impressive 66-59 victory over Clemson. Since returning from Charleston, they’ve won their last three contests, most recently dispatching Radford 67-51 at home.
When UConn has the ball
There’s really no other coach in college basketball that molds his coaching style to his current players the way Huggins does. Like always, the Mountaineers are stout on defense.
This isn’t the “Press Virginia” of previous years, Huggins said, but WVU forces more turnovers than just about anyone (No. 2 in defensive turnover percentage, per KenPom) and blocks shots almost as well as UConn can, ranking 9th in block percentage. Gabe Osabuohien anchors West Virginia defensively but has some help from Jalen Bridges and DePaul transfer Pauly Paulicap, who blocked three shots in a game against the Huskies last season.
While WVU is an elite shot-blocking team, they rely on athleticism more than size, with just one player, freshman Isaiah Cottrell, taller than 6-foot-9. Even though UConn can’t take advantage by having Sanogo bully these smaller forwards in the low post, it should provide an opportunity for Akok Akok, Isaiah Whaley, and Samson Johnson to stretch the floor and allow the guards to penetrate.
In the backcourt, RJ Cole, Andre Jackson and Jalen Gaffney will need to handle WVU’s pressure well enough to keep turnovers to a minimum. This has been an inconsistency in previous games against better competition that needs to be improved.
When West Virginia has the ball
The Mountaineers’ offense really starts and ends with Taz Sherman, who boasts one of the highest usage rates in the country at 31.4 percent of WVU’s offensive possessions. For context, that’s about two percent more than how frequently the Huskies used James Bouknight on offense last season.
Shutting down Sherman, who is averaging 21 points and 3.3 assists per game and just dropped 27 in the win over Radford, will be the biggest key for the Huskies. With Martin unavailable, Jackson will likely be tasked with guarding Sherman. Hurley called Jackson an elite perimeter defender earlier this season, it will be tested here.
Ideally, Jackson will use his athleticism and quickness to keep Sherman from penetrating and getting to the foul line. He’s taken at least eight free-throw attempts in half of WVU’s games this season and is an 86.9% shooter from there. If Jackson and UConn can force Sherman, a 29.8 3-point shooter, to settle for outside shots instead of fighting to get into the paint, the Huskies can stifle the Mountaineers' offense and escape with a victory. But if history is any indication it will not be easy.