9 PM ET
Lahaina Civic Center, Maui
The University of Connecticut Huskies get set to begin the Maui Invitational with a showdown against the Cowboys of Oklahoma State. The Hawaiian tournament has been kind to UConn in the past; they’ve won the event twice (2005, 2010). Maui is a place that conjures fond memories for Husky fans: it is where Kemba Walker announced his arrival on the national stage, and the place where Marcus Williams, Rudy Gay and co. knocked off Adam Morrison and the Zags on their way to a number one seed and the 2006 Elite Eight. Starting tonight, the 2016-17 edition of the UConn Huskies will attempt to imitate the runs of their predecessors.
For UConn, they come into this game after a rough start to the season, one in which high expectations have already crumbled. To further complicate matters, star freshman Alterique Gilbert reinjured his shoulder in their last battle against Loyola Marymount, and is likely done for the foreseeable future. It means that the shaky play of senior leader Rodney Purvis (5.7 PPG and just 13% 3PT) can no longer continue. He must team with sophomore Jalen Adams to challenge Oklahoma St.’s elite backcourt. Up front, Terry Larrier has been a bright spot for UConn. The sophomore is averaging 16.7 PPG and 5.7 RPG, and will need to be the offensive maestro he has shown flashes of in previous games. The one real advantage UConn may have is in size; they can throw multiple big bodies at the smaller Pokes. However, they must use this advantage, something they haven’t done so far. In fact, UConn is on average being outrebounded 39 to 36 by opponents this year. Without a concentrated effort on the glass that produces a rebounding victory, UConn will have little shot at a win.
New coach Brad Underwood has the Cowboys rolling, as they’ve topped 100 points in each of their first three games. The previously mentioned stellar backcourt, made up of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte, will be a major advantage against the depleted Huskies. As a pair, the sophomore and the senior average 45 points. These two anchor a strong starting five that has changed only once, at one position, so far this season. Coach Underwood’s true weapon may be Forward Jeffrey Carroll, an upperclassman who comes off the bench and plays 18 minutes a game. Carroll makes the most of that time, averaging 18.7 PPG. He also averages 8 boards a contest, and as a unit the Cowboys are averaging 45 a game through this early section of the season. While this has been against inferior competition, the sheer gaudy nature of these numbers makes them incredible. A similar performance against the Huskies on the glass could make this game ugly.
The Cowboys hit over 9 three-pointers a game, led by Forte, who is 9-24 on the young season. As a team, they hit 36 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, a far cry from the meager 27 percent UConn is hitting. This has been a rude awakening for the Huskies, who came into the season believing they had multiple weapons from three-point range, including Purvis, Larrier, and freshman Vance Jackson. Instead, it is the Pokes who boast the most shooters, with Thomas Dziagwa and Lindy Waters nicely complementing Forte, Evans, and Carroll. UConn must be better at defending the three-ball against the Cowboys than they have against their other opponents, who have hit 24 times over three games from deep. Oklahoma St.’s high-powered offense makes tremendous use of the three-pointer, and UConn must be ready for the challenge from deep.
Jawun Evans vs. Jalen Adams
While UConn will likely throw a multitude of different looks at stud Jawun Evans, including Purvis, Larrier, and freshman guard Christian Vital, it is likely Adams sees the most time paired against the Cowboys’ lead guard. How Adams responds to this challenge will dictate UConn’s defensive performance. If he can use his size and athleticism to stay in front of the lightning-quick Evans, then the Huskies have a shot of containing him, and limiting Oklahoma St.’s other options that would be available off of double teams on Evans. Likewise, Adams can use his own slashing ability to make life difficult for Evans on the other end of the court, and help get the Pokes’ best player gassed or in foul trouble. Adams has the physical tools to neutralize the advantage a player of Evans’ caliber brings to a game. For UConn to defeat the Cowboys, Adams must do his best at stopping Evans.
It has been a rough couple of weeks for fans of UConn. The injury to Gilbert only aggrandized their despair. However, now is the time to turn their season around. Even though they played a close game, and could have easily lost, against Loyola Marymount, there were spurts during that game in which UConn got out in transition and looked like a team worthy of their preseason ranking. This has to be the breakout game for Rodney Purvis. Gilbert’s injury has made him indispensable, and the Husky off-guard showed last year he was a skilled player on offense (12.8 PPG, 39% 3PT). If he and Adams can match Evans and Forte, UConn should be able to pull this game out, and get their season back on track. UConn 70, Oklahoma St. 67.
The winner of this game plays the winner of North Carolina-Chaminade (likely the Heels), while a setback means a date with the loser of that game. Both of those matchups would take place on Tuesday.