When: Thursday, March 23
Where: T-Mobile Arena — Las Vegas, Nevada
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -4, over/under 139.5 - Odds presented by DraftKings
KenPom Predicted Score: No. 4 UConn 75, No. 8 Arkansas 69 | 69 percent win probability
For the first time in nearly a decade, UConn men’s basketball is back in the Sweet Sixteen. The Huskies demolished a pair of Gaels — first Iona, then Saint Mary’s — to earn the right to take on 8-seed Arkansas in Las Vegas with a berth to the West region final on the line.
The Razorbacks may be an 8-seed, but arguably have more NBA talent on their roster than just about any team left in the tournament. In a special NCAA tournament-only NBA mock draft, ESPN had four Razorbacks players on their list, one of the highest totals of any school. Head coach Eric Musselman is also no stranger to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, having reached the Elite Eight in each of the last two seasons. Musselman may be a little crazy — he took off his shirt to celebrate his team’s win over 1-seed Kansas, but the man can coach, and has some of the most talented players in the country on board to run his system.
Musselman’s offense may be the exact opposite of what Saint Mary’s tried to do. Instead of slowing the game down to a crawl and hitting 3-pointers, Musselman’s Razorbacks are much more uptempo and willing to do damage around the rim and with mid-range shots. As crazy as it sounds, think of this Arkansas team as a souped-up version of this year’s St. John’s squad — a Red Storm team that soundly defeated UConn in Gampel in January in the most confounding loss of the season.
Like St. John’s, Arkansas will push the tempo but not rely on 3-ball, mainly because they don’t shoot it well. The Razorbacks shoot just 31.3 percent from deep, but rely on 3-pointers for less than 28 percent of their points — the lowest percentage of any team still left in the tournament. Instead, they knock down mid-range shots, finish at the rim and get to the free throw line, where they’re shooting 74 percent so far in the tournament. We broke down the Razorbacks’ offense more in-depth in our new Fast Break newsletter, which you can read here.
When UConn Has the Ball
Adama Sanogo has basically been a one-man wrecking crew so far, scoring a tournament-best 52 points in the first weekend. Arkansas bigs Jordan Walsh and Macho Mitchell are likely better than anyone Sanogo has seen this tournament, but neither have enough size to give the junior big man a ton of trouble. Sanogo should still get plenty of touches down low, and if he can remain as efficient as he was in Albany (24-33 shooting), he will continue to be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Jordan Hawkins once again was a non-factor in the first half against Saint Mary’s, but came through in a big way in the final 20 minutes with a flurry of 3-pointers that put the game on ice. He’s still finished in double figures in each of his first two tournament games and is shooting over 50 percent from beyond the arc, but some first half points against the Razorbacks would do wonders to alleviate pressure on Sanogo in the post.
After scoring just four points against Iona, Tristen Newton bounced back in the second round with 13 points. As arguably the best player on the Huskies’ offense at drawing fouls, he will need to take advantage of Arkansas’ propensity for fouls and get to the line. The Razorbacks average over 19 fouls per game, and Newton can easily capitalize on that for some easy points at the charity stripe, where he is an 81 percent shooter.
Against Saint Mary’s, UConn’s bench helped the Huskies wear down a short-benched Gaels’ squad that frequently used just six players all season. As UConn’s bench chipped in 12 points, they helped wear them down by maintaining a faster tempo than the Gaels were used to. While that won't be the case against the Razorbacks — Arkansas loves to run — the floor-stretching abilities of Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra will once again be key to keep the defense honest. Big man Donovan Clingan will be the tallest player on the court when he's in, and will once again be relied upon to dominate the glass and alter plenty of shots around the rim.
When Arkansas has the ball
When UConn inexplicably lost to St. John’s at home, the Huskies’ defense put too much emphasis on the perimeter of an offense that simply doesn’t want to shoot from there. The Red Storm proceeded to blow by UConn defenders who came out too far to guard mediocre shooters, allowing for easy buckets at the rim. By the time the Huskies went to Madison Square Garden later on to take on the Red Storm, UConn sagged off more, made the Red Storm try and beat them in the paint, and came out with a comfortable win.
The Huskies will have to have a similar approach against the Razorbacks, but will have to deal with an NBA-level backcourt this time around. Davonte Davis scored 25 in the win over Kansas in round two, shooting 9-15 from the field. He was joined by Ricky Council, who added 21 points and attempted 11 free throws. And that doesn’t even mention 6-foot-5 freshman Nick Smith, who is arguably the best NBA prospect of the group but has struggled in the tournament so far, scoring zero points against Kansas and just six in the opening round win over Illinois. If Smith gets going again — he scored 24 or more points in three of his last four regular season games — he’s going to make the Razorbacks’ backcourt even more difficult to stop.
With so much size, skill and athleticism in the backcourt, guards like Newton and Andre Jackson will have their work cut out for them to keep the likes of Davis, Council and potentially Smith in check. While UConn’s foul problems haven’t been as big of an issue outside big East play, Arkansas loves to create contact and get to the line.
Players like Hawkins, Sanogo and Clingan need to be aware of this and avoid getting into foul trouble early, as Hurley will almost certainly pull them out of the game and won’t risk them getting a third foul before the second half, as he has done all year. Jackson has been an impact player and super glue guy for the Huskies all season, and his aggressiveness and athleticism will be needed to keep Arkansas’ group of future NBA players in check. For the first time seemingly all year, UConn will not have the best athletes on the floor at any given moment.