UConn will face New Mexico State in its opening matchup in Buffalo on Thursday night, hoping to reach the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season. If they pull it off, the Huskies will either see the No. 4 seeded Arkansas Razorbacks out of the SEC or No. 13 seeded Vermont Catamounts from America East.
Though Arkansas will be favored in this matchup, Vermont has what it takes to pull off the upset. Winners of the America East regular season and tournament championships, Vermont has made the NCAA tournament three out of the past five seasons and fourth time overall under head coach John Becker. They may also have their most complete team in years.
Vermont cruised through its conference tournament, with an average margin-of-victory of 36.7 points. The Catamounts are 21-1 in their last 22 games, winning by double digits in 19 of them. Simply put, the America East was not enough competition for Vermont, and the Catamounts will be a popular upset pick to take down Arkansas in the first round.
UConn matches up well against UConn on paper. Both teams are actually similar in terms of roster makeup and style of play. UConn and Vermont are both led by 6’8” big men who generally hang near the rim and use their frames to muscle in tough buckets. Two-time America East player of the year Ryan Davis has also developed into a reliable deep shooting threat during his senior season, hitting 42% from behind the arc. This could make things tough for Sanogo defensively. Vermont will likely try to draw Sanogo away from the paint as much as possible, likely with a high ball screen at the top of the key where Davis will actually pop out for a three instead of rolling to the basket. Communication on defense and early recognition are going to be major keys for the Huskies if they see these looks.
Both squads are also led by a senior point guard — RJ Cole for UConn and Ben Shungu for Vermont — who score in bunches and have a great feel for the game. Shungu is more heavily relied on, but both can fill it up and know how to run an efficient, methodical offense. UConn is 291st in adjusted tempo per Kenpom, just three spots below Vermont.
Rounding out their starting five is a tough wing/forward hybrid in Isaish Powell who plays closer to the basket than Tyrese Martin, but has a very similar build at 6-6, 220 pounds. Justin Mazzula is a trusty fifth-year senior guard who doesn’t take a lot of shots (5.4 per game) but makes a high percentage (50% FG) and also limits his turnovers. Joining Shungu and Mazzulla in the backcourt is Aaron Deloney, a reliable sidekick to Shungu who provides experience, ball-handling, and solid three-point shooting (41%).
Vermont is also a legitimately deep team, with nine guys averaging at least 13 minutes per game, eerily similar to the Huskies’ playing time distribution.
UConn fans would definitely prefer not to play Arkansas, but this Vermont team has the pedigree, experience, and talent to surprise people. UConn will need to hit the boards and utilize its superior athletic ability to steal some points from the Catamounts in order to advance.
Out of the two possibilities, the Razorbacks clearly present the tougher matchup for UConn, and an interesting matchup at that. Arkansas plays a much different style than UConn, sitting at 28th in adjusted tempo per Kenpom, which leads to lots of quick buckets.
Led by two All-Sec first-teamers in electric guard JD Notae and forward Jaylin Williams, Arkansas loves to run and create havoc on the defensive end. Notae is a shot creator extraordinaire, possessing an innate ability to score in any given situation and no matter the defensive look thrown at him. He finished second overall in the SEC with 18.4 points per game. He’s also an elite defender, leading the conference with 2.2 steals per game. Williams is fourth on the team with 10.5 per game, but first in rebounds (9.6) and third in assists (2.6), proving to be an indispensable centerpiece of Eric Musselman’s team on both ends of the floor.
This dynamic team loves to disrupt game flow by deploying a press and getting out on the break. They generally run an eight-man rotation and like to spread out teams as much as possible, with Williams manning the middle. Six different Razorbacks this season averaged over eight points per game. They are a poor three-point shooting team, however, finishing in the bottom three in the SEC at 30.7% from deep.
Notae and Williams are the unquestioned leaders of this team, but Arkansas has four other guards who can fill up the stat sheet. Stanley Umude and Au’Diese Toney both stand 6’6” and have each scored over 20 points multiple times this season. Toney is not a three-point threat (8 total made on the season) but chooses to make his living near the rim. He uses his elite athleticism to catch oops and draw fouls close to the basket and has the highest free throw percentage on the team (80.4%) as well as the most makes. Umude is a transfer from South Dakota and former 20+ point per game scorer in the Summit League who is Arkansas’ third option. He is the Razorback’s most consistent three-point shooter at 37.1%.
Along with Umude and Toney, lightning-rod grad transfer Chris Lykes, who spent four seasons in Miami before joining the Muss-bus, helps hold down the Arkansas backcourt. Lykes hasn’t had the impact many thought, but with almost 1500 points under his belt, he is someone that absolutely cannot be overlooked.
Arkansas is a team that can really frustrate its opposition and runs with the best of them, evidenced by their wins over Kentucky, Auburn, LSU (twice), and Tennessee. UConn is going to have to slow down this game and not let Arkansas fluster them with their length and dogged on-ball defense. If the Huskies can handle the pressure effectively and not let this game become a turnover fest, they’ll have a chance to win.