When: Wednesday, Jan 24 — 6:30 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion — Storrs, CT
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -7, over/under 153.5
KenPom Predicted Score: 82-74 UConn, 78 percent chance to win
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After getting back in the win column following a 30-point dismantling of Butler this past weekend, the No. 19 UConn men’s basketball team will take on No. 13 Xavier tomorrow evening in what will be their second and final regular season matchup.
Both teams fell in the rankings this past week after picking up a loss. Xavier was knocked five spots in the poll after dropping what might be the stinker of the season to lowly DePaul - although it was only its first conference loss. UConn’s one-point loss to Seton Hall was enough to drop Dan Hurley’s team four spots, even with the big win over Butler.
This is a massive game for the Huskies, as they look to regain some of their early-season momentum to stay competitive in the conference. Xavier is currently leading the Big East at 8-1, but is about to enter into arguably its toughest stretch of games during the course of the year with road contests against UConn, Creighton, and No. 16 Marquette over its next six. Throw in two more against Providence and St. John’s and we could be seeing a little shake-up in the standings over the next few weeks.
UConn, meanwhile, needs this game if they want to hold onto any sliver of hope in winning the Big East regular season title. Even though that may be too much of an uphill battle at this point, the Huskies really just need to prove that they are still one of the best teams in this league. A convincing win against the Big East’s top dog would go a long way for Hurley & Co.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball
It was an extremely competitive game earlier in the year when these Musketeers handed UConn its first loss of the season. The game was much closer than the double-digit ending margin would lead some to believe. The Huskies were up by one at the half and the game was tied with four minutes left to go. What was working for the Huskies in this one? The answer may not be well received by UConn twitter, but feeding Sanogo paint touches about 5-7 feet from the basket so he can unleash his array of post moves on forwards Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle led to more than a few buckets and will likely be one of the focal points in this upcoming game as well.
Not to say this should be UConn’s whole offense, as they sometimes have found themselves in cyclical motion of chucking the ball into their post star lately, which has gone poorly after double-teams get sent his way or he forces up a shot when he’s not in his comfortable position. If Xavier head coach Sean Miller decides to send those looks at Sanogo, he’s going to need to do a better job of identifying that early and getting the ball out quicker. If finds himself with a one-on-one matchup though, Sanogo should once again go to work, especially if he can draw some fouls on the two talented big men.
UConn also saw some unique looks in that game to which they weren’t necessarily accustomed. Andre Jackson’s defender was sagging off by about 10 feet and Alex Karaban got mauled on offense, among other issues. The Musketeers’ defense on Jackson worked to an extent - he shot a career-high 12 3-pointers, but still made four, which is about right at his career average. Where he really excelled was as a facilitator - seven assists to zero turnovers in the first half. This is a part of Andre Jackson’s game that really gives him an edge over players at his position, and with UConn lacking a true floor general, it will be interesting to see if Hurley opts to have his swiss army knife handling the ball more. Jackson recently spoke to his role offensively and how it could grow. “[We’re] definitely trying to find more ways for me to be effective on the offensive end. Coaches put me in the post, coaches find a way to get me off cuts, and different curls and stuff like that - just find different ways to score and also just being more aggressive in my opportunities in transition and when I do have chances to attack the rim.”
While Jackson seems to always be the X-factor, it may be safe to say Jordan Hawkins is UConn’s best scorer. He really got it going against Butler, hitting tough shot after tough shot, ending with a team-high 20 points. After the Butler game, Hurley spoke about needing more offensive freedom with this squad, “We need our guys playing a little bit more off script,” he said. “I think the mistake I made was not giving them a little bit more freedom a little bit sooner when people started getting into us and blowing up our action.” As the best iso-scorer and shot-maker, look for Hawkins to continue to hunt his shot more for the Huskies.
When Xavier has the ball:
The Musketeers are one of the hardest teams to guard in the country because they speed up the game, score uber-efficiently from all three levels, and don’t turn the ball over a ton. They are KenPom’s No. 6 team in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 5 in 3-point percentage. A lot of their success this season has to do with Miller finding an certified portal gem in point guard Souley Boum, the 69th-ranked transfer coming into the year according to 247sports. Boum has been a revelation for Xavier this season, taking his Conference-USA averages and virtually reproducing the same stats but with higher efficiency, in a much tougher conference. He is a dynamic, score-first playmaker that elevates the play of everyone on the team.
Boum is especially good in pick-and-roll scenarios, where Xavier has two perfect complements to help him dissect defenses. Nunge, who can pop out to the 3-point line and bury a long ball with his 40 percent stroke from outside but can also score inside with his 7-foot, 245-pound frame, and Zach Freemantle, who has been banging around in the painted area of the Big East for four years now. Freemantle is a guy who understands exactly how to seal his defender and score in the low post and like Sanogo, is a below-the-rim type of player - utilizing angles and pump-fakes as much as he can to get easy buckets. Both had their way with the Huskies last time, especially against Alex Karaban, combining for 31 points and 14 rebounds. Lately, teams have been zeroing in on UConn’s freshman four-man, and it’s working. Miller was the first to truly expose this weakness in UConn’s defense and he’ll likely try to do the same again. Nunge and Fremantle both present mismatches for Karaban, along with Purdue transfer Jerome Hunter, who poured in 15 points off the bench for the Musketeers last go-round. It will be interesting to see if returning forward Samson Johnson potentially comes in earlier than expected if Miller succeeds in attacking Karaban early once again.
The smooth-shooting Colby Jones joins Boum in the backcourt to form what is likely the best guard duo in the conference. Jones isn’t as quick as his running mate, but has drastically improved his outside shot (29 percent last year to 41.7 percent this season) and chips in five points and five rebounds per night as well. Tristen Newton did a good job of slowing down Boum, helping hold the California native to a 3-10 performance, but he also picked up four fouls. The Huskies' propensity to foul has taken them out of games recently and was a major reason why this one slipped away. It’s easier said than done keeping these aggressive and skilled guards in front of them but UConn has to do a better job of staying in position, and when out of position, helping each other without giving up ticky-tack fouls. Those following the Huskies over the past month know all about their ridiculous disparity in free throws attempted, and this is the game that started it. UConn has to buckle down on defense and do a better job of keeping its opponent off the charity stripe.