Based on history, this is not exactly the opponent the Pirates would like to see right now. But based on recent play, it's a toss-up.
The Pirates haven't beaten UConn since March 3rd, 2001, which includes 10 straight losses to the Huskies. Going back even further, it gets uglier- the Pirates have won just 2 of the last 20 and 6 of the last 30 against UConn.
But there is reason for hope.
The Full Report:
2010-11 record: 17-4 (5-4 Big East)
2009-10 record: 18-16 (7-11 Big East; 2nd round- NIT)
Key losses: Jerome Dyson, Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards, Ater Majok
Key Returnees: Kemba Walker, Alex Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb (freshman), Shabazz Napier (freshman), Roscoe Smith (freshman), Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Tyler Olander (freshman), Niels Giffey (freshman), Charles Okwandu
The reason there are so many key returnees is that this year, all are receiving double digit minutes and have played in all 21 games this year. These Huskies travel in a pack.
Jim Calhoun's squad started off the year hot. White-hot. They won the Maui Invitational, beating Michigan State and Kentucky to do it. Kemba Walker went into insane beast mode, averaging around 30 a game and carrying the Huskies on his back. They have a ton of talented freshmen- Shabazz Napier is a stellar lite version of Walker, Roscoe Smith is a plus defender, Jeremy Lamb can score the ball (as he's shown in the last 3 games), Niels Giffey can shoot, and Tyler Olander is a smart backup big. Add that to the size of Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu, and you get a pretty solid team.
So why do the Pirates have a shot in this game? Several reasons:
1- This is the Big East, where literally anything can happen.
2- The Pirates are at home in front of what should be a sellout crowd.
3- Kemba Walker is in a MONSTROUS slump.
It's no secret- as Walker goes, so go the UConn Huskies. Teams have been loading up on him lately, and the physical toll is beginning to affect his shot- making. Walker is shooting just 28 percent in his last 3 games, and he scored just 8 PTS against Syracuse on Wednesday, a season-low. Alex Oriakhi has also been in a funk, averaging just 7 PTS and 5 REB in the last 3 games after averaging a double-double in his previous 5 games.
The Huskies have lost two of those 3 games.
Jeremy Lamb, however, has been great for UConn in that stretch. The freshman wing has averaged a hair over 22 PTS in those last 3 games, and has scored in double figures in 6 straight. He is an athletic wing who can do it all on the offensive end, although he is much better when driving to the basket.
Shabazz Napier is a lightning-quick backup point guard who can and will take anyone to the rim, much like Walker. Napier is also UConn's best three-point shooter at 38%, so the Pirates must defend him as they would Walker, but a little tighter.
Charles Okwandu is a big body with 5 available fouls, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel is unspectacular. Niels Giffey can really shoot it from range, and Roscoe Smith is a good defender who leaves a lot to be desired on offense.
The Huskies will always, as in years past, play a tough, physical brand of basketball that usually results in a lot of foul shots. UConn's greatest strength is its FT shooting, with only Oriakhi and Okwandu under 70 percent for the year. UConn also has a size advantage on Seton Hall, so it is imperative that Herb Pope and Jeff Robinson stay out of foul trouble, especially considering that Aaron Geramipoor, who has enough height to compete with UConn, doesn't have nearly enough muscle yet to bang with Oriakhi and Okwandu (and even Olander).
PIRATES WILL WIN IF:
- The starting bigs stay out of foul trouble. Duh (see above).
- Jeremy Hazell wakes up from his slump. If you take away DePaul and Syracuse, Hazell's numbers are not pretty. At all.
- Jordan Theodore shows up to play. Theodore needs to keep Kemba Walker struggling, so in order to do that, he has to show up in this game, as much of the defensive game plan will likely be stopping Walker. Theodore is the masthead for this effort, and if he fails to bring the intensity that it takes against Kemba, the Pirates will lose, and likely badly so.
HUSKIES WILL WIN IF:
- Kemba Walker breaks out of his slump. As Kemba goes, so do the Huskies.
- They get to the foul line. The Huskies shoot 75% as a team on foul shots, and if they enforce their physicality and will onto the Pirates, Seton Hall will be in trouble.
- They play with energy. The Huskies seem to be in a bit of a mental funk right now, and that's the only way to break it.
By the way, I'm on color commentary for this game on 89.5 FM WSOU or online at wsou.net. Give a listen!