Preview & Prediction: By Raphielle Johnson
Two of the nation’s best defenses take center stage on Big Monday, with new #1 Connecticut (20-1, 9-1 Big East) visiting a Louisville (17-3, 8-0) team that may be playing the best basketball in America. The Huskies got over the hump that is the Providence Friars on Saturday (PC had won 5 of the previous 6 meetings), beating them 94-61 behind Hasheem Thabeet’s first triple-double. But a more important development, especially when considering the matchup with Louisville’s Terrence Williams (12.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 4.7 apg), may be the eighteen points supplied by junior swingman Stanley Robinson. Robinson, who missed the first semester in order to take care of personal issues, seemed too worried about upsetting the order of things and stepping on the toes of teammates. Truth is, head coach Jim Calhoun needed “Sticks” to come in aggressive and allow the Huskies to vary their rotation on a game-to-game basis if need be.
And while the 7-foot-3 Tanzanian will get the lion’s share of the hype, coaches throughout the Big East know all about senior power forward Jeff Adrien (14.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg). Adrien may be considered undersized, but the man simply gets the job done night in and night out. While Thabeet will match up with talented freshman Samardo Samuels, Adrien will have his hands full with the versatile Earl Clark. Connecticut looks to have a good advantage in the backcourt with seniors A.J. Price and Craig Austrie, junior Jerome Dyson and freshman Kemba Walker in the rotation. While the Cardinals have a talented backcourt quartet of their own, they aren’t always the most consistent bunch.
Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith are the starters for Rick Pitino’s team, but you’re just as likely to see Preston Knowles and Andre McGee on the floor. While Sosa and Smith are the more explosive grouping on offense (the bulk of the scoring comes in the frontcourt), Knowles and McGee can ratchet up the defensive pressure to an uncomfortable level for just about any opponent. The Cardinals have essentially a seven-man rotation, but a player who will see more action due to the opponent (and his play against West Virginia on Saturday) is freshman forward Terrence Jennings. Jennings accounted for thirteen points in the 69-63 win, which is also his career high. Both he and UConn’s Gavin Edwards (14 points, 12 rebounds in a December win over Gonzaga in Seattle) will have something to say about the outcome of this game, although it’s tough to project either as the deciding factor.
Connecticut and Louisville are at or near the top of the Big East in just about every defensive category, with the Cardinals grading out as the country’s most efficient defensive team (kenpom.com). But while there’s not a whole lot of separation on that end of the floor, Ken Pomeroy’s offensive ratings tell a different story. Louisville plays at a fast rate (49th in the nation; Connecticut ranks 117th), but they’re far from efficient (76th nationally, UConn is 5th). What can be derived from that? The Cardinals don’t always take the best shots, but they make up for it with their ability to push the tempo and force turnovers.
While that can work against teams who fail to use restraint and run when they want to (West Virginia in the 1st half Saturday), when they run into teams that can control the tempo (see losses to UNLV and Western Kentucky; the Hilltoppers ran when they wanted to and not when it was dictated to them) the Cardinals can be knocked off. And with a point guard as savvy as A.J. Price, the Huskies should be able to handle the Cardinals’ pressure in a close win.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 3-7 pts.
Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
If you thought that the end of the NFL season meant you could take a break from parking yourself in front of sports for a few days, you’d be missing out on some great college hoops games, including tonight’s compelling battle atop the Big East. Three teams have separated themselves just a tiny bit from the pack in the mega-conference, and two of these leading three will clash when #3 Connecticut (20-1, 9-1) faces #7 Louisville (17-3, 8-0).
Connecticut took its only loss in its conference opener with Georgetown, but since then it has rolled off 9 straight wins. This streak in Big East play has not featured the conferences’ three other top contenders in Marquette, Pitt and the Cardinals, but does include wins over West Virginia, Villanova and Notre Dame. Louisville had a scratchy start to the season, dropping games to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV, but the Cardinals are 9-0 in 2009, including ending Pitt’s perfect run and getting a good win at Syracuse.
Connecticut has one of the nation’s best offenses, an extremely efficient unit that dominates most opponents inside, but has a solid outside shooting presence as well. The Huskies make a good, though not spectacular, percentage of their shots, but grab nearly 40% of their misses, commit very few turnovers and get to the free throw line seemingly at will. However, in this game they will be confronted with the nation’s best defense, as Louisville has held opponents under a point-per-possession in all but a single this season. The Cardinals are the best defensive rebounders in the Big East, grabbing more than 70% of missed shots, and they get a lot of practice, as opponents shoot just 42.9 eFG% against them. Louisville also forces turnovers, but won’t keep the Huskies off the free throw line particularly well. Given UConn's focus on the offensive glass and inside scoring, its clear this game will be fought out in the paint.
The problem for Louisville is that its national-best defense is saddled to a below-average Big East offense. The Cardinals take a lot of threes, but don’t make a very good percentage, and are also weak free-throw shooters. Considering its strong defensive play inside, Louisville hasn’t been very good on the offensive interior, and will be hard pressed to deal with a Connecticut team that has its strength inside. The Huskies block a lot of shots and are do well on the defensive glass, but are also very judicious with fouls, sending opponents to the line less often than any other team in America. UConn also holds opponents to a low percentage from outside, so it will be hard for Louisville to score.
Connecticut features an excellent inside duo in 6-7 senior Jeff Adrien and 7-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet. Adrien has made 53% of his shots and gets to the line often, while also being a strong force on the glass and leading the team in scoring. Thabeet is a game-changer, shooting over 65% (a higher percentage then he makes on his free throws), averaging more than 9 boards a game and leading the Big East in blocks. The question about Thabeet is how large his role is; often the Connecticut offense will ‘lose’ him. Stanley Robinson has returned to the starting line-up to provide even more size inside, and the 6-9 junior has shot very well, though his rebounding has been spotty. Junior Jerome Dyson takes more shots than any other player, but his percentages aren’t particularly good; he sits at 45 eFG%, and has made only a third of his shots in Big East play. A.J. Price is a solid point guard, averaging more than 4 assists per game with a 1.9 A/TO ratio, and shooting nearly 45% from behind the arc. Craig Austrie is a strong shooter who generally takes a pretty small role in the offense, while speedy freshman Kemba Walker is a good scorer inside who lacks consistency, but can be electric when he’s on.
You’d be hard pressed to find a deeper combination of forwards than Louisville’s, as the three most important Cardinals all occupy the inside. Earl Clark leads Louisville in scoring, but shoots under 45%, and needs to stop taking threes, where he shoots under 30%. Clark also averages nearly 9 rebounds and 2 blocks a game. Senior Terrence Williams is an incredibly versatile player, a decent scorer who leads the team in steals, assists and rebounds. Williams is a credible triple-double threat, and manages to do so efficiently, committing few turnovers given the importance of his role. Freshman Samardo Samuels has been inconsistent, but the 6-9 Jamaican is a very good scorer who gets to the line a lot and is another rebounding and shot blocking force. When we move to the backcourt, though, things get a little more suspect. Edgar Sosa has his moments, but tends to waste possessions more often than not, shooting ugly percentages, including under 30% from three, and committing a lot of turnovers. Fellow starter Jerry Smith doesn’t take a lot of shots, but is much more efficient, the team’s best long distance threat. Andre McGee takes a lot of threes off the bench, with mixed success, and sophomore Preston Knowles provides another potential shooting threat. Freshman Terrance Jennings seems to have stepped into the main backup spot down low, and has really blossomed in some tough games, providing secondary scoring against Syracuse and West Virginia, including a career-high 13 against the Mountaineers.
The numbers suggest that Louisville should be a slight favorite in this one, but I’m going to go against that with my pick, I just don’t like Louisville’s offense enough. No team in the Big East has combined offense and defense as well as Connecticut, and while the Cardinals should be able to hold UConn in check, I just don’t think they’ll score enough to win it. This should be a fun one, though, with an excellent matchup of big men, and the inside will likely be where the game is won and lost.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 2-6
-- Evan Dorey's rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple: all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.
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