Despite being ranked No. 1 in the country by ESPN/USA Today, it is far from certain that the University of Connecticut will even win the Big East regular season title—they are currently tied for second with Louisville, trail Marquette and sit just a game ahead of Pittsburgh.
But consecutive victories this past week at Providence and Louisville illustrated just why Connecticut is the best bet to be the last team standing, not just in the Big East, but the nation. First, they scored 94 points and ran past Providence, 94-61. Two days later, they played shutdown defense and crushed Louisville, 68-51. In other words, Connecticut does everything well—they have more ways to beat you than any other team.
A look at Connecticut’s team stats tells part of the stories. The Huskies trail only Syracuse in field goal percentage, at just below 49 percent—but Connecticut is tops in the Big East in opponent’s field goal percentage, at less than 38 percent. Connecticut leads the conference in rebounding margin. The team averages 7.4 blocks per game—second in the country. Even Connecticut’s assist-to-turnover ratio is fourth in the conference, and has steadily improved in conjunction with the maturation of freshman point guard Kemba Walker.
In short, the only thing Connecticut doesn’t do exceptionally well is force turnovers. But if a team can score and defend at will, rebound misses and block shots, then forcing turnovers would merely be a luxury.
Connecticut’s results reinforce the team’s master-of-all-trades ability. In non-conference play, the Huskies outscored Gonzaga, 88-83, and out-defended Wisconsin, 76-57. In conference, Connecticut has 10 wins—four times scoring in the 60s, twice in the 70s, and four times in the 80s. In other words, there isn’t a pace a team can play that hurts Connecticut.
Individual matchups provide still more evidence of Connecticut’s diversity. Few teams have a center 7-foot-3, as Connecticut does in Hasheem Thabeet, the best shot-blocker in the Big East. But should a team’s center be more of a hulking physical presence, Connecticut can counter him, too, with the remarkably consistent power forward Jeff Adrien, who has scored between 12 and 18 points in every conference game this season, six times also reaching double figures in rebounding.
As a result, Connecticut also has little trouble scoring inside. But should a team attempt to collapse on the interior defensively, Connecticut can burn you from the perimeter—both A. J. Price and Kemba Walker shoot better than 40 percent from three-point range. So there is no individual strategy that can foil Connecticut, either.
Price and Walker are the two major reasons that, incredible as it may seem, Connecticut is likely to get better as the season continues. Price, who was a All-Big East team selection last season, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the NCAA tournament.
His play upon returning this year was inconsistent at first; seldom did Price have two consecutive good games. But though he’s averaging just 12.2 points per game on the season, he’s at 17.1 over his last eight contests, with seven double-figure scoring games in the mix. He appears less tentative offensively, and has improved defensively.
Walker, a highly touted freshman, appears to have figured out how to harness his electric speed and also hold on to the ball. Walker had 34 assists and 33 turnovers in Connecticut’s first 14 games, an unacceptable 1-to-1 ratio. In his last eight games, however, Walker dished out 26 assists and committed just 13 turnovers, a 2-to-1 ratio that would rank among the conference leaders.
Only Georgetown has beaten Connecticut this season, and the loss should serve as a cautionary tale to just how difficult beating the Huskies will be. The Hoyas shot the ball exceptionally well, particularly from three-point range, limited turnovers and played exceptional defense. Connecticut had a bad night shooting the three, Thabeet scored just four points and the team had just six assists and 17 turnovers.
Was this a perfect storm? There hasn’t been a single game since where most, let alone all, of those factors have come together. And if Price and Walker keep improving, it probably won’t happen again.
WEEKLY RESET—Games to Watch
Saturday, Feb. 7
Cincinnati at Georgetown, Providence at West Virginia, No. 20 Syracuse at No. 16 Villanova, Notre Dame at No. 12 UCLA, Michigan at No. 1 Connecticut
Just clear your Saturday, and make good use of the Tivo. Cincinnati is coming off of a win over Notre Dame to get to 5-5 in conference play. A win at Georgetown and the Bearcats have to be considered candidates for the NCAA tournament. Georgetown, meanwhile, needs the win over Cincinnati to get to within a game of .500 in conference play—the mark they’ll likely need for an NCAA bid, given their victories over Connecticut, Memphis and Syracuse.
Providence is 6-4 in the conference, but has very few quality wins, and that 94-61 loss to Connecticut coupled with an ugly loss to Northeastern makes their climb steeper. A win at West Virginia doesn’t guarantee anything—but with remaining games against South Florida and two with Rutgers, it makes a 10-8 conference record likely, which should be enough for the NCAA tournament.
Villanova and Syracuse is the marquee matchup of the day. Villanova, with a win, can open up a two-game lead in the loss column over Syracuse for the fourth seed in the Big East. (Remember, the top four seeds get double-byes this year for the Big East tournament, and only need to win three games to earn the conference’s automatic bid.) Meanwhile, a win by the Orange ties Syracuse for that final double-bye spot.
As for Notre Dame, the loss to Cincinnati put the Irish in extremely dire straits for an NCAA berth. With seven conference losses already, and 9-9 the likely minimum standard for the tournament, the Irish will need every quality win they can get—especially with five reasonably difficult conference games left on the schedule: hosting Louisville and Villanova, traveling to Providence, West Virginia and Connecticut.
Connecticut hosts a Michigan team that has struggled of late, but was a giant-killer earlier this year, upending both UCLA and Duke.
Tuesday, Feb. 10
No. 8 Marquette at No. 16 Villanova
The most exciting game of the week features the conference’s best guard tandem in Marquette against what is probably a close second from Villanova. Expect lots of three-pointers and pressure defense. This one smells like Marquette’s first conference loss—the game is being played on the Villanova campus, and that place gets loud.
Wednesday, Feb. 11
No. 20 Syracuse at No. 1 Connecticut
Hard to imagine Syracuse can defend well enough to knock off the Huskies in their own building. But Syracuse has the athletes and shooters to stay with Connecticut, especially if Connecticut has an off night offensively—the Orange shoot nearly 50 percent from the field.