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NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: UConn’s Potential Second Round Opponent

Alabama and Iona face off Saturday, with the winner taking on either UConn or Maryland.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Mississippi State vs Alabama Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start by saying UConn men’s basketball should not be overlooking Maryland tomorrow. We covered that extensively, here, here, and basically everywhere.

But should the Huskies leg out the Terrapins, some intriguing matchups await. Let’s take a quick look at the bottom rung of the East region to get an early glimpse of who UConn could end up facing in the Round of 32.

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 15 Alabama - 4 p.m., March 20, TBS

Iona (No. 185 KenPom overall, No. 210 offense, No. 160 defense)

Iona blitzed the MAAC tournament thanks to some Rick Pitino dark magic. The man is a horrible human being but gosh darnit can he coach, going 39-16 in 17 tourney appearances. They entered the MAAC tournament as a No. 9 seed and rattled off four wins to sneak into the Big Dance. The Gaels are probably in over their head here, but you can count on Slick Rick to make it interesting.

Why UConn should fear them: Because it’s Lord Voldemort. Iona’s mediocre record in the MAAC could largely be attributed to multiple COVID-19 shutdowns and an injury to guard Ashante Gist. Pitino has concerted the off-ball guard into a very capable floor general, and freshman rim protector Nelly Joseph is getting better every game. They’d have nothing to lose facing UConn after knocking off Final Four favorite Alabama, and Pitino squads tend to be kryptonite for the Huskies — just ask Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.

Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 8 KenPom overall, No. 34 offense, No. 2 defense)

Alabama plays at a breakneck pace, shoots a zillion threes, and defends at an elite level. They’re basically an NCAA model of those peak Golden State Warriors teams. Eight players have 48 or more 3-point attempts this season. UConn, for reference, has five.

Keep an eye out on Bama’s do-it-all senior forward 6-foot-8 Herb Jones, SEC Player of the Year and the electric John Petty Jr., who also earned All-SEC honors. They also have Villanova transfer Javon Quinnerly, who, when he’s not trying to singlehandedly take down the NCAA, is the country’s best sixth man. Jordan Bruner, the highly-coveted 6-foot-10 Yale transfer from this offseason, anchors the Tide in the middle.

Why UConn should fear them: Because they’re the most modern college team in the game. Threes and layups are all head coach Nate Oats wants to see, and he gets a lot of the latter through turnovers. Plus, UConn’s 3-point defense percentage defense was the worst in the Big East.

So while UConn can get out and run with the most athletic teams in the country, a unit that plays lockdown defense and hoists threes at an absurd yet efficient rate is nightmare fuel for Dan Hurley.

What to Watch: It will be fun watching Pitino’s press against Oats’ equally helter-skelter style. There are whispers on the interwebz that Bruner is still rusty after working his way back from a knee injury. Does that make the Tide vulnerable inside? For as good as ‘Bama is shooting from downtown, if you live by the three, you die by the three. They went cold in the SEC tournament. Could it happen again?