For the first time since 2012, UConn men’s basketball will return to Madison Square Garden to open up play in the Big East Tournament. The Huskies will take on No. 11 seed DePaul, who beat No. 6 seed Providence 70-62 in the opening round Wednesday night.
When: 9 p.m. Eastern
Where: Madison Square Garden
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Line: UConn -12.5, Over/Under 133.5
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 72, DePaul 60
After years in the American, the Huskies are finally back under the bright lights in Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament. With head coach Dan Hurley saying his team is healthier than ever heading into postseason, fans and experts alike have high expectations for this UConn team despite being the No. 3 seed in the tournament.
With top seed Villanova battling injuries and No. 2 seed Creighton dealing with racist comments from its head coach, UConn, who has won seven of their its eight games, has become a trendy pick to cut down the nets on Saturday night. Throw in that the Huskies have a star in James Bouknight and a budding sidekick in RJ Cole and UConn seems poised to make a big splash in its first year back in the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies and the Blue Demons met twice this season with UConn winning both matchups convincingly — 82-61 at home and 62-53 on the road without Bouknight. In both wins, Cole’s defensive presence was the difference maker, as he shut down DePaul’s standout guard Charlie Moore, who scored just 17 total points on 24 shot attempts in his two games against the Huskies this season.
In the win over Providence in the opening round, the Friars had no answer for Moore, who dropped 21 points to help Dave Leitao and DePaul pull off the upset. In a sloppy game that featured 43 fouls and 31 turnovers, the Blue Demons kept Providence’s David Duke in check and clamped down defensively, holding the Friars to just 0.86 points per possession to send them home early.
UConn is much more talented than Providence but that doesn’t mean they can take DePaul lightly, even having already beat them twice this season. Moore is a dangerous scorer and teammate Javon Freeman-Liberty is a worthy wingman, also scoring 21 points in the win over Providence. The Huskies may be the higher seed, but the Blue Demons are coming off an emotional win and are playing to save their season. A convincing win for UConn Thursday night would show everyone that they’re not messing around in its quest for an eighth Big East Tournament title.
When UConn has the ball
Bouknight and Cole will need to continue to play how they did to close out the regular season if the Huskies want to make a serious run at the Garden. Can Bouknight take his game to a different level and carry this team like we’ve seen from other great UConn guards before? His scoring ability is otherworldly, and if he can do that consistently in March, UConn is a real threat.
Even though everyone is healthy now, the front court is still slightly thin with just Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley seeing significant minutes as of late. Can senior Josh Carlton step up to provide quality minutes to spell the two starts incase they’re tired or in foul trouble? If UConn can get 10-15 good minutes out of Carlton, it takes a ton of pressure off Sanogo to contribute on both ends immediately — which would be ideal for a freshman getting his first taste of postseason play.
Jalen Gaffney has been a real spark off the bench as of late, throwing down some thundering dunks and dropping 15 points in 22 minutes in the win over Georgetown. Can he be the offensive spark plug for this team in New York City? If not, the Huskies will need Andre Jackson or Big East Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Polley to provide some offensive assistance for short stretches — outside of the Georgetown game, this offense almost always a few minutes of ineptitude every game.
When DePaul has the ball
Cole put the clamps on Moore both times these teams met, and will be tasked with doing it once again. Moore has had an up-and-down season this year, but has been more consistent as of late, scoring 20 points or more in three of this last five games. Now more than ever, he’s shooting well enough to carry DePaul and has a reliable second scorer alongside him in Freeman-Liberty. Between Cole and any combination of the Huskies’ bigger guards, UConn matches up well with the Blue Demons but if this game gets ugly, much like DePaul’s game with Providence did Wednesday night, the Blue Demons will hang around for a lot longer than they probably should.
Freeman-Liberty and Moore do the bulk of the offensive heavy lifting for Leitao and DePaul, scoring 42 of the Blue Demons’ 70 points Wednesday while no other player reached double figures. If they can keep Pauly Paulicap off the boards, the only other legit threats are Romeo Weems and Kobe Elvis, both of which shoot the three at over 37 percent. UConn will likely force the likes of Paulicap, Weems and Elvis to beat them, and while they’re not scrubs, they don’t have the firepower of Moore of Freeman-Liberty to carry this offense.
Even without Akok Akok for a major part of this season, UConn remains one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country, ranking fifth nationally in block percentage. If Akok is healthy and ready to contribute, even a few minutes from him per game adds another dimension to this defense and a ton of versatility, allowing the Huskies to switch everything with certain lineups on the floor. He might not have a solid spot in the rotation yet, but outside of Bouknight, he may be the most talented player on this team. His return would do wonders for UConn’s defensive depth come tournament play.