UConn has engineered one of the most dominant Final Four runs in recent memory. Will the Huskies dominate their way to a national title?
UConn has had an incredibly weird season, to put it mildly.
Through Dec. 28, the Huskies looked like the best team in the country and had just one game decided by single digits. Then came the slump, during which UConn lost six of eight. Since Jan. 31, however, the Huskies have returned to the top of the mountain, going 13-2 in that span, with the losses decided by a combined total of just five points.
The backcourt is elite. The frontcourt is elite. And people will rightly start to ask if head coach Dan Hurley is elite as well. In a tournament defined by top teams losing, UConn has been as dominant as they were for most of the season. In order for their January slump to be viewed as simply a blip on the radar, the Huskies will need to prove their talent for two more games.
READ HEAT CHECK
How they got here
UConn’s tournament run has been defined by early second-half runs leading to blowouts in all four of their games. The Huskies beat their opponents by an average margin of 10.8 points in the first ten minutes after halftime, and their average margin of victory in the first four rounds was 22.5 points.
The teams the Huskies played were no slouches either: both Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s being in the top 15 of basically all the analytics; Arkansas had just upset the 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks; and Iona was coached by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino. However, when a team can move the ball as well as UConn has — the Huskies assisted on over 70 percent of their made baskets in three of the four games — and dominate the boards by over 11 rebounds per game, it will have a huge advantage over any team.
In their 82-54 victory over Gonzaga, UConn played two halves of complete basketball and became the overwhelming favorite to win the National Championship. The Huskies have been the best team in the country since Feb. 1, per Torvik, and the best team overall this season, per KenPom. They are playing their best basketball at the perfect time.
How they beat you
UConn’s two-headed center spot allows Hurley to play an All-America caliber player in the post for 40 minutes per game. Adama Sanogo is about as good an interior scorer as there is in college basketball, and Donovan Clingan’s 14.6 block percentage would rank second in the country if he played a qualifying number of minutes.
Having this security in the paint allows Hurley to play shooters at pretty much every other position on the floor, except for Andre Jackson, who serves as the team’s glue guy and point guard. Four Huskies shoot better than 36 percent from deep, and players such as Sanogo (34.7 percent) and guard Naheim Alleyne (33.0) also command some respect on the perimeter.
This dynamic offense is coupled with an excellent defense featuring length at every position on the floor. The Huskies contest every shot, make attacking the rim a massive chore and limit offensive rebounds with the size of their frontcourt. Even in games where they don’t get out to a fast start, they will wear down their opponents to fuel the second-half explosion.
How you beat them
Beating the Huskies requires good communication on defense — and a whole lot of luck. In five of eight losses this season, UConn shot under 31 percent from deep. On the other hand, the Huskies won every game in which they hit over 40 percent. In two of the three losses where they shot 35 percent or better from deep, the team was snakebitten by at least 16 turnovers.
Forcing the guards to miss 3s might be “easier” in a football stadium, where the sight lines are different from basketball arenas, but the Huskies are shooting nearly 42 percent from deep through four rounds. They also have Jackson, who can be an effective scorer at the rim if the defense sells out to run the other guards off the line.
On defense, UConn does not force a lot of turnovers, and they foul at a relatively high rate. If teams attack the paint and draw fouls, they might have some success in both limiting floor time for Sanogo and/or Clingan and getting easy, uncontested points.
Player to watch: ANDRE JACKSON
Andre Jackson has been the heart and soul of the UConn Huskies all season, and that isn’t going to change. Defensively, Jackson is a guard who can match up against almost anyone and have success. He can alter shots, create turnovers and is one of the best rebounding guards in the country.
On offense, Jackson is most comfortable as a playmaker for his teammates, recording five assists or more in half of UConn’s games this season. What he showed against Gonzaga, however, is he is just as comfortable taking on the scoring role when the defense decides to sag off of him. All of that makes him a triple-double threat; although he has never recorded one during his career, he came ever-so-close against Gonzaga with eight points, nine rebounds and 10 assists.
Can they win it all?
A more appropriate question for UConn might be: Who is going to stop them?
One could reasonably argue that the Huskies have already faced their toughest test of the NCAA Tournament in Gonzaga, a game they won by nearly 30. There might not be another team in the Final Four that can match UConn in the low post for 40 minutes, and their ability to create second-chance opportunities will put a lot of pressure on their opponents to be perfect. If the Huskies do encounter a scoring drought, their defense is good enough to win games for them as well.
The last time the Final Four was this crazy, back in 2011, UConn won their third National Championship. The way this tournament is shaking out, it appears as thought the road has opened for the Huskies to haul in their fifth.