UConn men’s basketball dropped out of third place in the Big East with its 64-62 loss to Creighton Wednesday night. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the Huskies’ second-to-last game of the regular season.
The Secret is Out
Patrick Martin: Coach Greg McDermott just showed the entire world how to beat UConn. He recognized that a lineup of RJ Cole, Tyrese Martin, Andre Jackson, Isaiah Whaley, and Adama Sanogo simply doesn’t have enough outside shooting to threaten teams consistently. So he packed the paint on Sanogo and laid off Jackson and Whaley, daring them to shoot either from three or midrange.
On any pick-and-rolls, Creighton’s ‘drop coverage’ packed the paint even tighter. Hurley and company adjusted by giving Cole and Jalen Gaffney the green light from mid-range. Cole’s wizardry made the counter look effective, but the reality is those midrange pull-ups are low percentage shots. And even if Cole was able to probe and hit Sanogo after some patient static dribbles, the sophomore almost always found himself in a crowded paint and taking contested looks.
All of this is made possible by leaving non-shooters Jackson and Whaley open. If teams have to respect Polley or Hawkins on the perimeter, it’s really difficult to drop coverage. The good news is that it’s a lot more effective when you have a 7-foot-2 pterodactyl in the paint like Ryan Kalkbrenner or an athletic freak like Arthur Kaluma. UConn won’t see many teams in the NCAA built like the Bluejays, but if they do see similar schemes, Hurley may have to respond by sacrificing some rebounding and putting as many shooters as possible around Cole and Sanogo.
Martin: Full confession: Dan Madigan and I are Team Akok Akok ride or dies. However, I won’t sit here anymore and say Akok is some raw NBA talent wasting away on the bench. It’s sad to say, but maybe those days are gone with that brutal Achilles injury. But unless he had another injury setback, zero minutes last night for Akok seems odd. Maybe Hurley thought his lean frame would get abused down low by Kalkbrenner, Kaluma, or Ryan Hawkins. But is he not worth a look? Is the confidence that far gone?
One surefire way to beat drop coverage is a pick and pop. I think back to the devastatingly effective pick-and-pops Shabazz Napier used to do with DeAndre Daniels. Akok’s 3-point stroke could drag bigs away from the paint and open up the spacing. It doesn’t have to be Akok either, what about Whaley in that spot? If the Huskies are done in early this month, it will be because they were too one-dimensional in their offensive sets. You don’t need to be some intricate offensive juggernaut, but if your two-man game is going to emphasize Sanogo inside — as it should — it would help to switch it up every now and then to keep defenses honest.
Dan Madigan: I couldn’t agree with Patrick more. I don’t think Akok would be able to swing that game in one way or the other, but I would have loved to find out. As good as Sanogo is, it’s a lot to ask of him to do what he does on offense while also being thrown into so many screens on the defensive end. A few minutes of Akok, who is faster and longer than Sanogo, may have been enough to get Kalkbrenner out of rhythm.
Ryan Goodman: UConn got blitzed early, that much is obvious. Creighton jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first 10 minutes of the game and was up by as many as 16 points in the first half. I first chalked this up to the Bluejays being fired up and desperately needing a statement win after being blown out by Providence this past weekend. This was partly true. A prime example of this was Ryan Hawkins’ three from the logo. Absolutely ridiculous shot to take and make with nine seconds on the shot clock. After these types of shots started to quiet down, though, Creighton continued to score at a high clip off of simple screen and roll action while also capitalizing on fast-break opportunities.
As Madigan and Patrick pointed out, UConn didn’t make any major adjustments defensively and continued to allow easy drives to the basket either off of said screen and rolls, or from a beeline one on one move that saw no help defense come. Sanogo was caught in no man’s land countless times, or desperately trying to catch up with Kalkbrenner off a roll. I may not be as high on Akok as the rest of the UConn Blog writers, but his skillset may have been the better fit to defend this action. This also would’ve allowed Sanogo to get some rest, as he was clearly gassed at multiple points in the game, which makes sense since he played 37 minutes, the third most minutes he’s played all year.
Fourth Place Isn’t All That Bad
Madigan: For the sake of my own sanity, let’s assume that Creighton beats Seton Hall at home on Saturday, as they are projected to have a 52% chance of winning per KenPom. That locks UConn into the No. 4 seed in the Big East Tournament regardless of how they play against DePaul, and means they’ll take on Marquette in the quarterfinals on Thursday afternoon.
While it’s incredibly difficult to beat a team three times, assuming UConn can get past the Golden Eagles, they’ll take on No. 1 seed Providence in the semifinals. The Friars did beat UConn in December, winning 57-53 at the XL Center, but are ranked considerably lower in KenPom than No. 2 seed Villanova. The Friars are less efficient on offense and defense than the Wildcats, and while their matchup does pose problems for the Huskies, it’s hard to be too frustrated with the seeding when this lower seed could actually give UConn a slightly better chance to cut down the nets at Madison Square Garden.
That being said, the Huskies need to beat a hot DePaul team to get some momentum back. The Blue Demons have won three in a row and are fresh off an 11-point beatdown of Marquette. They also played the Huskies close when they faced off in Chicago in January. Finishing the regular season with two losses would crush a lot of the momentum the Huskies have built over the last month or so, and a win could get them back on track to being a contender in March.
Goodman: I’m not going to sit here and say this loss is “good” for UConn but it does have its pros and cons. I, as did every UConn fan, wanted to go into the Big East Tournament on a seven-game win streak. This seemed likely waking up on Sunday morning with a six-win Georgetown team, a Ryan Nembhard-less Creighton, and a second-to-last place DePaul team to close out the season. This didn’t come to fruition, but it actually may be a blessing in disguise. As Madigan pointed out, this loss could lead to UConn getting the four seed in the Big East Tournament, which would mean they would play Marquette in the quarterfinals and then get another shot at Providence in the semis. If they get the three seed, they could play the winner of Georgetown and Seton Hall in the other half of the bracket, and then play Villanova in the semis. Beating Marquette for the third time is far from a given, but UConn has definitely had a tougher time this year with Seton Hall than Marquette, so I think even this swap could be beneficial.
I am also one of those people that thinks Villanova is a significantly better team than Providence, and would much rather have another crack at beating the Friars earlier than having to play the best team in the conference in the semifinals. I know this seeding is a bit of a headache, and these are not the only two possibilities since things are still undecided, but the bottom line is that this could potentially give UConn a better path to the Big East championship.
Hawkins Rollercoaster Season Continues
Goodman: Freshman Jordan Hawkins has had quite the turbulent season. After missing the first game with an ankle injury, he scored in double figures in four out of the next nine games, highlighted by a career-high 16 points against Auburn. Hawkins appeared to already be way ahead of schedule in his development, and the term “one-and-done” made its way into the minds of UConn fans early on. This was quickly dispelled after Hawkins only reached this double-digit mark in four of his next 20 games, and UConn came back to earth a bit.
Hawkins had been shooting the ball fairly well of late, hitting at least one three in seven of his last eight games, highlighted by an 11-point performance against Georgetown in which he may have had the dunk of the year. This play had to do wonders for his confidence, which has definitely fluctuated throughout the year. Against Creighton, Hawkins was pretty inactive early and then had to exit after running into a brick wall that was a Kalkbrenner screen, not returning for the rest of the game. He finished 0 for 1 from three, with another shot attempt blocked that turned into a quick basket on the other end for Creighton. I truly believe that if UConn is going to make a run in March, Hawkins is the X-factor. The Huskies are 7-0 in games where he hits double figures. Hawkins is a streaky shooter, but one that can create his own offense and turn into a microwave at any given time. If Hawkins is even a smidge below 100% going into the DePaul game on Saturday, I am in favor of resting him and making sure he’s ready for the Big East Tournament. Here’s to hoping he can capture some of his early-season magic and give UConn the boost that they need.