The No. 18 UConn men’s basketball team has been on a revenge tour of late. Losses to Seton Hall, Xavier, and Villanova were all vindicated in the last month after three big wins at home.
To complete the sweep of revenge games, though, the Huskies have to do something they’ve never done before; beat Creighton.
There’s more than revenge at stake. UConn and Creighton are jostling for the third seed in the Big East tournament. The Huskies go into this game having won six of their last seven, and looking to keep the positive momentum going into March.
When: Wednesday, March. 2 — 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: CHI Health Center—Omaha, Neb
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn - 4
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 68-66
When UConn has the ball
It’s been a little more than a month since that Creighton loss served as a reality check for the Huskies, who at that time were winners of five straight. Stumbling against Creighton at home made it seem like maybe UConn was just feasting on the soft underbelly of its schedule. And after getting boat raced by Villanova one game later, panic was starting to set in.
What a difference one month makes, with UConn now playing its best basketball of the season and setting itself up for a run in March.
In February, the Huskies were flummoxed by Creighton’s size and switchability, and it’s going to get even trickier with 7-foot-2 Ryan Kalkbrenner — who left the last meeting with a knee injury — back and patrolling the paint. UConn wasted a 20-point outing from Isaiah Whaley, as head coach Greg McDermott packed the paint in an effort to let anyone not named Adama Sanogo beat him.
Creighton teams in the past have been offensive juggernauts, but the Blue Jays are getting it done on the other end this year, with an adjusted KenPom defensive efficiency that ranks 25th in the country. In the conference, Creighton’s FG% defense is second only to UConn’s, while Kalkbrenner swats 2.8 shots per game.
The quartet of RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, Jordan Hawkins, and Tyler Polley went a combined 0-10 from three, so, umm, not doing that will be important. Connecting on just a few of those threes should free up more space inside for Sanogo, and if the shots don’t fall, the rebounding margin will tell the tale of the tape; Creighton leads the conference in defensive rebounding, while UConn is now third in the country on the offensive glass with 13.8 per game.
UConn’s bench scored two points in a combined 36 minutes last time vs. Creighton. Hopefully the emergence of Hawkins and a trademark Poll3y hot streak — who is seven of 12 from three the last three games — can lighten the load that UConn’s big three carries.
When Creighton has the ball
Creighton’s point guard Ryan Nembhard went down last week with a fractured wrist. Although Cole and company held the star freshman to just six points on two of eight shooting, his absence leaves the Blue Jays without a floor general who’s second in the conference in minutes per game. Creighton also has the worst turnover margin in the Big East, so look for the ball pressure to be ratcheted up.
Containing Ryan Hawkins, who poured in 23 points and connected on four threes last time, is the top priority. His 14.2 points per game is a matchup nightmare, the 6-foot-7 sophomore is fourth in the conference in threes made per game (2.4). Perhaps the athleticism of Jackson or Whaley can make life tougher on the Division II transfer. The Blue Jays are dead last in the conference in three-point field goal percentage.
Trey Alexander has stepped up in Nembhard’s absence, averaging 14 points, five rebounds, and four assets in the last two games. The 6-foot-4 freshman is an explosive lead guard, so UConn’s backcourt will have their hands full keeping him out of the paint, a struggle for the Huskies lately. Putting a body on Kalkbrenner — who’s tied with Sanogo for the conference in offensive rebounds per game at 2.8 — is also critical.
The CHI Health Center is one of college basketball’s most underrated home courts. The Blue Jays sell out nearly every game and a raucous bunch of Nebraskanites could be the great equalizer tomorrow. Per Evan Miya, Creighton’s home rank — which measures how much better a team performs at home versus road games — is 13th in the country.
The Huskies have a tendency to make it a rock fight against conference opponents on the road; grind-out wins against DePaul and Marquette come to mind. It will have to be that sort of game for UConn to walk away with a win.
Offensive sets tend to falter on the road against a well-drilled defensive team. Who can go out and make a play, whether it be a timely three, or a back-breaking offensive rebound?
Prediction: The Nembhard loss is too much for the Creighton home crowd to overcome. Huskies 60, Creighton 53