After the Huskies’ 85-74 loss to the St. John’s on Saturday, UConn has now lost four of their last five games and fallen to 15-4 on the season. While the Huskies have had flashes of their old self since starting Big East play, it has come and gone much more frequently due to their instability on the defensive end.
“We have become a team that’s easy to beat,” Dan Hurley said postgame. “We can’t score enough to beat you right now and we’re not playing great defense.”
UConn still ranks No. 11 in the country in defensive efficiency per KenPom, but the Huskies have played much worse than that as of late. St. John’s just shot over 62 percent on 2-point shots, one of the worst marks UConn has posted on defense since the KenPom era began 22 years ago.
The Huskies also now rank 311th in the country with 19.2 fouls per game. In the last three games, that number is at 21 per game. UConn is also fifth in the country in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (27.2%). Teams have only made 74 threes against them all season! Dan Hurley has drilled these kids to run guys off the three point line so much that they’re getting beat off the dribble, and that’s when the fouls happen. Free throws dull defensive intensity, disrupt rotations, and most importantly for UConn, prevent you from getting out in transition.
UConn’s defense has neutralized teams that shoot a lot of threes like Alabama, Villanova, and Creighton through strong perimeter pressure. But against a team like St. John’s that can’t throw the ball in the ocean and only wants to attack the basket, it's a recipe for disaster. It was a similar theme against Georgetown; the Hoyas are 306th in the country in three point attempts per game, but almost beat UConn because of 23 free throws. Sometimes, the stubborn ‘we must enforce our will on a game’ is less effective than dissecting a team’s weakness and going from there.
Hurley seems to have pinpointed it, to a degree.
“The perimeter defense has just been dreadful.”
“It’s terrible on ball defense. It’s a lack of identification of guys that are non-shooters so drivers are seeing huge gaps in the defense,” Hurley said. “And guys that are struggling defensively are struggling offensively and they’re taking struggles to the defensive end of the court.”
Seton Hall, UConn’s next opponent, is 299th in the country in three point attempts per game. They’re the best in the Big East at two-point rate and 24th in the country in free throws attempted per game. This is a gut check moment for the Huskies to see if they can adapt their defense on the fly and play to the matchup. Pack the paint with your behemoths inside, and dare the Pirates to beat you from outside.
What are some tweaks that can spark a turnaround? The 1-3-1 zone made another late-game appearance vs. the Johnnies. It seems that’s been a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ tweak when UConn was down and needed quick stops. It would be interesting to trot out that defense with a lead, to see if it speeds a team up into sloppy mistakes that can then trigger a fast break.
The on-ball defense could also lead to more calls for the Sanogo-Clingan lineups. Think of the Jeff Adrien-Hasheem Thabeet lineups in 2009, where ball handlers were funneled into the middle. You had the roaming, weakside shot-blocker in Thabeet to account for, but also the space-eater in Adrien who clogged the paint up.
Clingan and Sanogo could be a modernized —albeit less elite — version of that, and maybe adding Jordan Hawkins, Tristen Newton, and Alex Karaban around them is enough spacing to not look completely anemic on offense. Basketball is a lot different than it was in 2009, but if UConn’s defense wants to get back to its identity, no option should be off the table.