Saturday, 6:07. Ford Field, Detroit. CBS.
|Category||MSU Off||Nat Rk||UConn Def||Nat Rk|
|Category||UConn Off||Nat Rk||MSU Def||Nat Rk|
The only thing that qualifies as a “weakness” on UConn’s side of this ledger is the fact they doesn’t create turnovers on defense. But that’s pretty clearly a conscious choice on the Huskies’ part. Why go after the ball on defense when you can let your opponent bring the ball to you and get their shot blocked/altered by your 7’3″ All-American center?
And that’s exactly what’s happened this year when opponents try to score inside the 3-point arc. UConn ranks 2nd in the country in block % (17.2%) and 4th nationally in opponent’s 2-point shooting % (40.7%). (You’ll never guess who ranks first in the country in block%: Minnesota.) Hasheem Thabeet, of course, leads the way with 4.3 blocks/game, but forwards Jeff Adrian and Stanley Robinson also chip in a block per game each.
Even more frighteningly, the UConn big men patrol the paint without picking up fouls. The Huskies rank first in the country in opponent’s free throw rate. Thabeet averages just 2.5 fouls/game and has fouled out only 3 times this season. No other UConn player has fouled out more than once.
Oh, and it’s not like opponents have been able to roam the perimeter and get good shots off from beyond the arc. Connecticut is holding their opponents to a 30.4% three-point shooting %. (That number is down to 23.5% in tournament play.)
Add it all up and you can get the third best defensive team in the country by the numbers.
Offensive keys for MSU:
- Limit turnovers. It’s one thing to turn the ball over against a team taking risks in order to create the turnovers. Given that we’re almost certain to score inefficiently against UConn when we do get a shot off, we need to maximize the number of shots we get off. That means no boneheaded turnovers.
- It also means crashing the glass. UConn doesn’t give up a ton of offensive rebounds, but it’s MSU’s one clear offensive strength. We simply have to outwork and outhustle the Huskie big men to ensure we retain the advantage on the boards.
- Beyond that, it’s just a matter of scoring as many ways as possible that don’t involve trying to shoot a lay-up against Thabeet. Kalin Lucas needs to hit some pull-up floaters. Durrell Summers and Chris Allen need to convert whatever open 3-point looks they can find. Some buckets by Goran Suton, Draymond Green, and Delvon Roe off offensive putbacks–when Thabeet might not be in ideal defensive position–would be very helpful, as would a few transition baskets. (We can hope that Suton can use a couple wily post moves to get Thabeet out of the game for a long stretch with foul trouble, but I just don’t see that happening.)
Statistical evidence that maximizing the number of shots we get off is the overall key: Three teams have beaten UConn this season: Georgetown, Pitt (twice), and Syracuse (in the 6-OT thriller). In all four games, those teams took care of the ball (no TO% higher than 20.1%) and got some second-chance scoring opportunities (minimum OffReb% of 34.7%). Only one of the four teams posted an eFG% above 50%.
The ray of hope? We have a track record of winning some games without great shooting percentages.
- Senior point guard A.J. Price averages 14.7 points and 4.7 assists per game. He’s their main outside shooting threat, having made almost half of the team’s total 3-point shots on the season (at a clip of 40.7%). Price has stepped it up in tournament play, averaging 20.0 points/game.
- Senior forward Jeff Adrien averages 13.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. Adrien isn’t the most polished offensive player; he shoots just 50.5% from the field (almost all 2-point attempts). In their game against Purdue, I noted he was taking a lot of long jumpers that weren’t going in.
- Junior center Hasmeen Thabeet averages 13.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. He shoots a robust 64.7% from the field, but that number’s at least partially a function of taking a limited number of shots. He’s attempted only 21 field goals in the four games of NCAA Tournament play.
- Freshman guard Kemba Walker averages 9.0 points and 2.9 assists per game. He’s a speed guy who shoots only 27.1% from 3-point range. He led the Huskies in scoring against the Missouri scramble defense, scoring 23 points on 9 FG attempts.
- Junior forward Stanley Robinson averages 8.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. At 6’9″ and 210 pounds, Robinson reminds me of a slightly bigger and more explosive version of Raymar Morgan. Robinson was injured early in the season, but has become a major contributor of late. He’s averaging 14.8 points per game in NCAA Tournament play.
- Senior guard Craig Austrie averages 7.3 points per game. He’s taken the second most 3-point shots on the team, while making just 32.4% of those shots. He converted all three of his 3-point attempts against Purude, but has shot only 1-10 combined in the other three tournament games.
The final member of UConn’s 7-man playing rotation is junior forward Gavin Edwards, who is average 4.5 rebounds in 15.3 minutes of play per game in tournament play.
UConn is a veteran team that takes care of the ball, scores well in the paint, gets to the free throw line, and grabs quite a few offensive rebounds. Their only potential weakness is shooting the ball. They’ve made a pedestrian 34.1% of their 3-point attempts and just 69.0% of their free throw attempts on the season. Given that deficiency, the Huskies don’t look to take a lot of jumpshots. The rank 335th nationally in the percentage of their field goal attempts that come from behind the arc.
The good news here is that MSU’s man-to-man defense is already meant to encourage our opponents to take long-distance shots. Hopefully, that means Tom Izzo only has to make minor tweaks what the players already have ingrained in their heads. Expect the MSU defense to sag off shooters to try to prevent the UConn players from getting into the lane even more than usual.
Travis Walton has his work cut out for him trying contain Price. And Goran Suton will have to display some more dazzling footwork to keep Thabeet away from the basket, where he’s much less dangerous due to a limited repertoire of post moves.
It’ll be interesting to see what mix of lineups Izzo uses in this game. On the one hand, he could go small, with Morgan at the 4, to force Thabeet to guard Suton–who could then camp out at the top of the key. On the other hand, Jeff Adrian (6’7″, 243 pounds) is no pushover. Roe and Green match up with him best. In the end, Izzo will no doubt use a mix of lineups and stick with whatever works (if anything).
In a perfect world, the MSU defense forces the UConn players to take jumpshots, secures the rebounds, and starts some fast breaks going the other way to avoid having to play against the Huskies’ half-court defense. Easier said then done, of course.
In an imperfect world, MSU has trouble handling UConn’s size and picks up a lot of fouls, sending the Huskies to the line with frequency. UConn may not shoot all that well from the line, but 69.0% still beats your typical eFG%.
Kenpom predicts a 70-65 UConn win in a 68-possession game. My first take is that this match-up is even more imposing than the one against Louisville looked–at least when we have the ball. With Louisville, we knew what we had to do to score points: beat their pressure. (As it turned out, they pulled back their pressure and we proceeded to go about scoring efficiently against their less-impressive half-court defense.)
Against UConn, it’s less clear how to create high percentage shots. That means creating as many low-percentage shots as possible. And that means you’re working with a very fine margin for error, since you have to do two big things (ball-handing/rebounding) very well at the same time.
In Izzo, we trust.