UConn’s offensive star power steals headlines, but its defense tells the story of the Huskies’ season — and has keyed their NCAA Tournament run.
UConn’s latest run to the national championship game has been historic.
The Huskies are just the sixth team since 1985 to win each of their first five tournament games by double-digits with Saturday’s 72-59 victory over Miami serving as the closest game on this run. The Huskies have provided plenty of flash on the offensive end in the process. UConn has crossed the 80-point plateau in three of its five tournament games and has only failed to score 70 once since the calendar turned to March (a 70-68 loss to Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals).
Their offense has been praised all season long, and rightfully so. The Huskies will enter Monday night with the third-best offensive efficiency rating in the country, per KenPom, while also ranking in the top 10 for assist rate and offensive rebounding. The team has its individual standouts, too: Jordan Hawkins is going to be a first-round pick because of his shooting ability; Andre Jackson might be the best passer in the country; and Adama Sanogo is an unstoppable force in the low post.
It’s easy to fall in love with everything this offense brings to the table. Yet UConn’s success throughout the season has been directly and unapologetically tied to what it does defensively.
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Head coach Dan Hurley has routinely referred to his team’s high-level defensive effort as its “calling card” and “identity” throughout this postseason run. When the Huskies went through their struggles in January, it wasn’t because their offense was lacking — it was the defense that went from being elite to just average, and that’s when the losses started piling up.
Six of UConn’s eight losses this season came between Dec. 31 and Jan. 30, a span in which the Huskies were posting defensive numbers more befitting of a bubble team than a national title contender. UConn had peaked at No. 2 in the AP poll earlier in the year, but during this stretch, the team looked like a shell of itself.
Just as a poor defensive showing got them into their midwinter mess, an improved defense was what got them out of that rut. The Huskies’ turnaround helped spearhead their current run, which they’ve been on since February:
“It all starts with defense,” Hawkins said following the win over Miami. “On the defensive end, we’ve been very elite. We’re playing to our strengths. That’s the biggest difference in what we’ve been doing.”
Between the two teams in the national title game, San Diego State is the one that gets talked about for its defense the most, which makes some sense given how stingy the SDSU squad is and the role defense has played in the Aztecs’ run. However, UConn’s defensive ratings are very similar — even after going through that January slide.
The Huskies rank eighth in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, while SDSU is fourth. Meanwhile, UConn has been much better around the rim, largely thanks to the shot-blocking prowess of Sanogo and 7-2 freshman Donovan Clingan.
“We feel like we’re the best defensive team in the nation,” Tristen Newton told HeatCheckCBB. “We feel like we have the length, size and athleticism to guard anybody.”
UConn was the heavy favorite to win the championship entering the Final Four and is a sizable betting favorite against San Diego State on Monday night. That public confidence isn’t something the Huskies are necessarily shying away from, but it also isn’t something they’ve put much stock in.
“What we went through in January helps us a lot,” Hurley said about keeping his team grounded. “If we go away from our identity a little bit, we’re vulnerable.”
That will be true on Monday night as well. The Aztecs have a tendency to go through lulls where they struggle to score, something that can be exasperated by a defense as good as UConn’s. At the same time, San Diego State is by no means atrocious on that end. Brian Dutcher’s team just scored 39 points in the second half against FAU. In the Sweet 16, this group put up 71 points against Alabama, which has a higher defensive rating than UConn does.
The biggest key to the Huskies claiming their fifth national championship has been the key to what got them here in the first place: sustained, intense, high-level effort on defense. If they keep it up, UConn could be cutting down the nets on Monday.
Header image courtesy of C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images