It’s a rivalry game in the Big Apple! Connecticut (6-2) meets Syracuse (6-1) in a clash of old Big East titans. The game is the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic to benefit cancer research.
There’s something special about New York City. The streets of Manhattan bring out the best when two beasts of the east meet up for a battle. This will be the third-consecutive season these teams will meet despite no longer being in the same conference. In 2015, an arguably less-talented Syracuse team topped the Huskies in Atlantis. Last season, a decidedly weaker Huskies team knocked off Syracuse on the floor of Madison Square Garden. This season, the teams return to Midtown Manhattan for a rubber game.
Connecticut comes into this game unsure of their true talent level. They may be 6-2 without a bad loss, but both of their last two wins have come in overtime against teams from far weaker conferences. There’s uncertainty surrounding multiple players, particularly the injury-prone Alterique Gilbert. His shoulder issues have left the Husky backcourt depleted, but the three remaining guards are all quality players. Jalen Adams and Antwoine Anderson have proven themselves as playmakers. Christian Vital can be a strong three-point shooter and will not be scared of the big stage; last year as a freshman, he hit the two free throws that broke the 50-50 tie with a second left that gave UConn the win. Mamadou Diarra seems to be rounding into shape as a physical presence down low, though there is still not much in the form of offense from the Husky big men. Hopefully, Eric Cobb will be fully healthy. The six-foot-nine forward returned from an ankle injury on Saturday, but clearly was not completely comfortable.
Tyus Battle is as dynamic as they come on both ends of the floor. He will be the most important piece for a Syracuse team that’s down to seven rotation players after the departure of Geno Thorpe. Canadian Oshae Brissett is a tenacious rebounder and, as just a freshman, could go down as one of Boeheim’s best recruiting finds. He, along with Battle and Frank Howard, who also averages 6 assists a game, provide the bulk of Syracuse’s punch. Howard also keys the zone from the top, and averages over 2 steals a game. Anchoring the zone is the seven-foot-two Pascal Chukwu. He’s an elite shotblocker and allows the other defenders to attack passing lanes viciously; they know he’s back there to correct their mistakes. He blocked 8 shots in the win over Oakland. UConn has had a lot of trouble defending on the perimeter this season. Syracuse has largely struggled thus far shooting from the perimeter, but could find themselves with more quality looks against the Huskies.
Attacking the Zone
Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense has been made even more effective this year by the length of their perimeter players. Battle and Howard are the perfect players to be at the top of the 2-3. Oshae Brissett has been a revelation on the defensive end for Coach Boeheim, in addition to his offensive contributions. For UConn to put up any kind of fight on offense, they will have to execute well with their zone attack. Placing wing Terry Larrier in the foul line area will be crucial. Larrier’s ability to shoot from the perimeter makes him an ideal player to put in this middle gap. Cobb’s passing ability as a big man also makes him a strong fit to attack the zone from the middle. For the Huskies to be successful in the half court, Coach Ollie will have to distance himself from the usual ball-screen offense that has been run with mixed results thus far.
Neither of these teams are what one would call talented shooters from deep. In fact, they’re both anemic. The Orange shoot 28 percent from deep. The Huskies? A whopping 30 percent. Yet these teams combine to take 41 attempts from beyond the arc a game. In a game which promises to be a rugged affair, shots from three-point land may be the difference. UConn’s Terry Larrier shoots a very respectable 42 percent. For the Orange, only top guards Battle and Howard are over 30 percent. The three-pointer seems to be a bigger part of the Huskies’ offense, but both teams will look to utilize it. Whoever can hit perhaps a couple in a row to spark a run may have the overall advantage. The team that can make more triples will likely win this game.
This will be an ugly, ugly game. There’s no way around that. Neither team has a strong offense, though UConn may be slightly more apt. Syracuse has a stronger defense. Boeheim has recruited the perfect players for his scheme. They may not be overwhelmingly talented, but the length and quickness on the perimeter, combined with Chukwu in the paint, makes this a very difficult zone to crack. Battle, Howard, and Brissett are a capable scoring triumvirate that will carry Syracuse to quality wins all season.
All that being said, the pick to win this game is Connecticut. While neither team has much depth in terms of talent, the Huskies have the players to carry the day. Adams and Larrier will have to combine for close to 40 points, because scoring will come at a premium. Larrier in particular will have to be on top of his game to efficiently crack the zone. Last year, this game was won by a Connecticut team that was at a severe talent disadvantage. This year, Syracuse overall has more talent, but the gap is closer than 2016. Just like that 52-50 win that came down to free throws, UConn will rely on the crowd advantage (it was about 70-30 in favor of UConn last year) and its tenacity to gut out another low-scoring win. Connecticut 61, Syracuse 57.
Madison Square Garden: https://www.msg.com/madison-square-garden?type=%2BAll&happening=%2BAny%20time&location=40.7128%26-74.0059%2BNew%20York&venue_id=venue%2BKovZpZA7AAEA
Tyus Battle: http://orangefizz.net/2017/11/syracuse-basketball-player-preview-tyus-battle/
Terry Larrier: http://sportzedge.com/2016/11/23/uconn-forward-terry-larrier-lost-for-season-with-torn-acl/