The rematch is here. And it matters more than nearly everyone will admit.
Seton Hall is reeling from five straight losses, all but the last one to teams they probably should have beaten. Coincidentally, UConn is also reeling- they've lost 4 in a row to Cincinnati, Tennessee (BAD loss), the resurgent Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and most recently to Georgetown in a performance that set the season-low mark in terms of offensive futility. Jim Calhoun also won't be on the sidelines against the Pirates.
But that win over the Huskies? It doesn't mean as much now. UConn's recent string of losses has dropped them from the Top-25, and they desperately need this win, too.
As our esteemed editor GonzoBallSHU said earlier this week on Twitter, the winner of this game saves their NCAA hopes for another day, while the loser is destined for the NIT. Because this is a repeat opponent, there's no need for an extensive scouting report on the details of UConn's personnel or system.
What is noticeable over the stretch of the losing streak is that UConn's guard play is positively terrible. Their offense has no flow right now, and Shabazz Napier hasn't proved he can run an offense while Jeremy Lamb looks like a shell of himself. In their game against Georgetown, there was a total lack of movement, plus a total lack of shot-making. Many of those missed shots were contested jumpers, which UConn is settling for way too much.
Early in the game, the Huskies pounded it down low to Andre Drummond, and that worked well. Ryan Boatright was getting into the paint and running the offense very well. But after Napier came in, Boatright went out with foul trouble, and the offense suffered.
Because the Huskies suffer from a general lack of leadership or direction on the court, this is the worst possible time to lose Jim Calhoun again. It broke on Friday afternoon that the Hall-of-Fame coach will be taking an indefinite medical leave of absence, meaning that George Blaney will be on the sidelines. As Pirate fans know from the last time these two teams met, no Calhoun matters a lot. It mattered more on the road, but even with the game taking place in Hartford, I think Seton Hall caught a break.
The Pirates' issues haven't been with leadership, but shot-making. Against Marquette, the starting lineup was shaken up, and the Pirates finally got out in transition again. They missed too many layups rather than three point shots this time (they only took 15 threes all game and made 5, an average percentage), but they still need to be better in that department. Another issue pending in this game is whether or not Herb Pope will be able to play. He bruised a couple of ribs in Milwaukee diving for a loose ball, and is officially a game-time decision. Personally, I think it would take nothing short of being run over by a Mack truck to keep Herb Pope out of this game, but we'll have to see.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They can jump out in front early. A quick start is very important on the road, and the Pirates got off to one in their last game before a huge second half run got the Golden Eagles the win. It really doesn't matter how the quick start happens (either in transition attacking the basket or shooting threes). Especially if Pope ends up not being able to go, the quick start is very important.
- The bigs step up. With Pope's status up in the air, this will be paramount if he can't go. But even with Pope playing, Brandon Mobley, Aaron Geramipoor, and ESPECIALLY Patrik Auda need to step their game up against Drummond and company. Last game it was Jordan Theodore and Aaron Cosby that stepped their games up and won the Pirates the game with 7 of their 10 threes. This time with the recent shooting struggles, it's gonna have to be won in the trenches.
UConn will win if:
- They get better guard play. Shabazz Napier has had an extremely disappointing season, Ryan Boatright has his stretches, good and bad, and Jeremy Lamb has settled for jump shots. UConn doesn't run their offense through their big men, meaning as the guards go, so do the Huskies.
- They make "momentum plays." One thing the Huskies have going for them is their home crowd. Big dunks, big blocks, any momentum plays to get the crowd involved will be what UConn will need. If the Huskies use that crowd to fuel their play, they'll have a great shot against a team that hasn't really proven they can win on the road in the Big East yet.