Now that I have single-handedly eliminated all of the Big Ten teams from the Final Four, I think I should begin to look at some teams that are good enough to get it done. Actually all joking aside, it only took 3 days after my Michigan State post for the Spartans to lose at home to Penn State. Still, they can always get better, and things seem to be more wide open this year than ever before.
That said, the UConn Huskies have showcased themselves as the best team in the country, like I fully expected them to. They are at this point in the season, the best combination of defense and offense, ranking in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
UConn makes basketball a grown man’s game, like a power-running game in football that wears down opponents in the second half. They play the basketball your father grew up watching, specifically on offense. Their offense, by the way, is putting up 1.14 points per possession in Big East games and a total of 1.18 points per possession adjusted for all their games, ranking 5th in the country. How they get it done is what I’m referring to, as they ignore the three-point line almost completely like it was still the early 1980’s. In fact, the Huskies recently went on the road and blew out a very good Louisville team without making a single 3-pointer. For the season, UConn averages 0.229 3-point attempts per total field goals attempted, which is 338th in the country.
It’s no secret that UConn would rather get their scoring from inside the arc and most importantly, the free throw-line. UConn is 4th in the country in free throw attempts per field goals attempted (0.484), because they establish themselves in the post, drive to the basket, and also get offensive rebounds for putbacks at rate of 40.8% of their own missed shots. Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet provide so much size up front that they are a tough matchup for anyone. They score inside posting up, on alley-oops off a screen or drive, off an offensive rebound, and drawing a foul in any of those situations and getting to the line. Gavin Edwards provides that role for them off the bench as well when he gets in the game.
If the ball isn’t going to them, the backcourt is slashing to the basket off the dribble-drive for more 2-point attempts or drawing fouls and getting to the line, whether it be Jerome ‘Slicin’ Dyson, Kemba Walker, or Craig Austrie. AJ Price aka the Amityville Horror is probably the biggest example of a jump-shooter the team has and is a capable 3-point shooter at 44.4%. He also displays a solid mid-range game.
The Huskies are also 7th in the country in defensive efficiency, giving up 0.86 points per possession adjusted for all games. Their defensive style is no secret either, as once again they are among the best in the country at shot-blocking. In this case it is the services of Hasheem Thabeet who provides the shot-blocking presence that UConn seems to have every year. Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson, and Gavin Edwards also provide moderate levels of shot-blocking ability. The main point being, that the length of UConn makes it nearly impossible to score inside, as they are 9th in the country in 2-point field goal defense. And they do this all without fouling and sending opponents to the line. In fact, the Huskies are 1st in the nation in opponents free throw rate, allowing only 0.18 free throw attempts per field goals attempted.
The speed of Dyson, Walker, Price, and Austrie also make the defense pretty good on the perimeter as well. Opponents only make 31.4% of their threes against UConn.
Stanley Robinson is the X-factor for this team, after missing the first half of the season. At 6’9” he provides incredible length and athleticism at the small forward position, but can guard multiple positions. With the quickness to guard on the perimeter, and the length to defend in the post. He has shown glimpses, and has matured with the time off.
UConn is beatable, just as any team will be no matter how good they are perceived to be. When I've been critical of UConn is when the defense seems to be lacking. Sometimes the team relies too much on Thabeet and they allow dribble penetration and offensive rebounds. If dribble penetration is allowed, Thabeet blocks the shot or forces a miss, and nobody picks up the rebound, it's as if Thabeet is the only one there and the rest are spectators. That can be frustrating. However, you can't count on this happening to the Huskies, so you need a game plan. The formula for beating the Huskies is simple but difficult to execute, and is almost more of a matchup ideal than anything else.
Going by the Georgetown loss and the tough game against Michigan, it is clear that on defense a zone is preferred. Pack it in and force UConn to shoot from outside. On offense, the system must have a big man that can come out on the perimeter and force Hasheem Thabeet away from the basket. Making three pointers is the great equalizer, as UConn prefers to score two-points at a time.
It sounds easy, but the athleticism and execution has to be there, and that still isn’t always enough. So, with the best combination of defense and offense, UConn is perhaps the best team in the country, as I felt they would be. They are a throw back offense that pounds it inside, controlling the paint like it’s their lifeblood. Defensively, it is the length and athleticism that makes it a difficult task to score inside, and the speed that makes it difficult to score from the perimeter.