No. 18 Arizona (9-3) seems to have gotten back on track after a rocky start to the season. The Huskies (7-3) could use a quality road win to bolster their murky hopes. Will they get it Thursday night in Tucson?
Kevin Ollie is coaching for his professional life. There’s no point in mincing words or making excuses any longer; he has to pull a below-average UConn team together and make the NCAA Tournament. Failure is not an option for a coach that has in many ways been nothing but a failure since 2014. The season has been a roller coaster through the first ten games for UConn. They’ve beaten all the teams they should (though usually uncomfortably) while failing to step up when matched against quality opposition. Arizona presents a unique chance for Coach Ollie to buck this trend and have his team compete in a game no one expects the Huskies to win.
The days of UConn demolishing teams by forty seem distant. Their biggest win this season is by nineteen, while they’ve been taken to overtime by two cupcakes. Combined with a trio of blowout losses, and many fans are wary of this team’s talent level. Against the vaunted Wildcats, the star players for UConn will have to step up. Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier are both dynamic scorers. However, neither of them seems to do a great job of making their teammates better. This is especially troubling for Adams, who averaged over six assists a game last year. The stagnant Husky offense this season has run largely on isolation. There’s only so many creative ways for a player to take their defender off the dribble. There needs to be more creativity and more team involvement to possibly keep up with Arizona’s ability to score. Up front, the Huskies have a lot of bodies, but are at a severe talent disadvantage. Quality performances must come from each and every post player on UConn’s roster to at least slow down the torrid talent that Arizona possesses.
As just mentioned, the Wildcats have a vast talent advantage in the frontcourt. They’ve also got a supreme advantage in depth; Coach Sean Miller is not afraid to use eleven players in his rotation. Up front, it all starts with Deandre Ayton. The future lottery pick is more physically developed than any other freshman in the nation and knows how to use his body. His finishing touch around the hoop makes him a focal point of the Wildcats’ offense. He should get a bucket virtually whenever he wants against UConn’s smaller and less talented post players. Other freshmen like Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee also provide quality minutes. Getting Rawle Alkins back on the wing makes this offense all the more potent. He’s a tremendous complement to star player Allonzo Trier and forces teams to pick their poison, because it’s impossible to stop both of them. Arizona will be able to attack a porous Husky defense in a variety of ways. They can either dominate from inside and use the size to their advantage, or shoot right over a UConn team that lets teams hit thirty-six percent from beyond the arc and make nine a game. Because Arizona has been inconsistent with the three-ball this season (they shot a combined eighteen percent in their three losses but clock in at an insane forty-five percent in wins), it may be better for them to focus on their inside advantage. Ayton and Dusan Ristić should decimate UConn’s front line and put them all in foul trouble.
PJC, or Parker Jackson-Cartwright for the uninitiated, is Arizona’s starting point guard and one of the most underrated players in the country. The diminutive senior stands at five feet eleven inches but has one of the biggest hearts in the country. He’s the classic glue guy that makes all the other players around him better. Besides averaging five assists a night, Jackson-Cartwright is a tenacious on-ball defender, averaging almost two steals a game. Attacking him off the dribble could be difficult, but Jalen Adams is certainly capable of doing such a task and getting the Arizona talisman in foul trouble. Freshman Alex Barcello has served as the backup point guard this year for the Wildcats. He’s shown promise, but is not yet the same dynamic floor general as Jackson-Cartwright. Limiting his impact on the game, on offense and defense, will be crucial for UConn’s chances.
We just touched on the key to Arizona’s fluid offense. If the Wildcats’ offense functions like smooth jazz, UConn’s is more resembling to heavy metal rock. The jumbled Huskies average a meager ten assists a game (Arizona is at sixteen a game). The lack of movement makes it very easy for teams to shut them down, even if they have less talent than Coach Ollie’s team. Limiting Adams, Larrier, and Christian Vital makes the Huskies flat and easily defended. They need to trust one another to make hard cuts and deep shots. Without efficient offense, UConn will have no chance. Arizona in their three losses have had thirteen, eleven, and thirteen assists. When Jackson-Cartwright is contained and the bigger stars, Ayton and Trier, are forced to play iso-ball, the Wildcats can also become containable. However, they usually do a better job of mitigating this stagnation.
These teams have not played since the 2011 Elite Eight, an instant classic in which Kemba Walker led UConn over the Wildcats and a partisan crowd on his way to a national title. That day, the titanic clash between Walker and Arizona star Derrick Williams nearly broke college basketball. Both teams were evenly matched in depth behind their star players.
This year, there is no perfect matchup of talent. Arizona has about six future NBA players on their roster. UConn has, maybe two? The depth difference is also ridiculously in Arizona’s favor. UConn’s issue on this front has been made even worse by the uncertainty surrounding the shoulder of point guard Alterique Gilbert, who would thrive in a battle with Jackson-Cartwright. Arizona’s size, skill, and seniority in the frontcourt gives them an advantage. Their athleticism and length in the backcourt gives them an advantage.
The cards certainly are stacked against UConn. But part of being a good fan is the eternal optimism that each time your team takes the floor, you believe something amazing will happen. Thursday night will be no different. There are about a thousand reasons to pick Arizona. But Jalen Adams has underwhelmed thus far on the season. He is due for a massive explosion. Behind thirty points from Adams buoyed by five triples, UConn will do the unthinkable and upset the Wildcats on a night where Arizona struggles to hit open shots. Connecticut 68, Arizona 65.
Deandre Ayton: https://www.azdesertswarm.com/basketball/2017/12/10/16757952/arizona-basketball-deandre-ayton-rises-to-challenge-alabama-highlights-sexton-wildcats-recap
Jalen Adams: http://www.uconnhuskies.com/sports/m-baskbl/recaps/021917aaa.html