My regular readers know that the Big Ten group here takes great pride in its roundtables. While I and Boiled Sports carry the Purdue banner, we are almost literally overrun with representatives from Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan. Today we step outside our small circle of friend to talk with three bloggers who are dedicated to following tomorrow night's opponent: Connecticut.
These three gentlemen were kind enough to sit down and talk about UConn with me this week. I presented the same questions to each one and here are their answers in roundtable form. I also did a very quick paragraph for Searching for Billy Edelin on why Purdue will win the West Region.
T-Mill: UConn is another team battling injuries, but that appeared to have little effect in the early rounds. Was this a case of true recovery, or just playing two poor opponents?
Matt: Truthfully, I don't think UConn can really be characterized as a team "battling injuries." The Huskies have essentially had one (Jerome's Dyson knee injury), though it was as significant a blow that the program has faced entering the postseason in Jim Calhoun's tenure. I think what we've seen over the two first-round wins was a recovery of that. A.J. Price's emergence as a bigger offensive force in place of Dyson was apparent in the weeks before the NCAA tournament, but he's taken that to a different level. Stanley Robinson, for the first time this season, has seemingly found a nice offensive groove, and his growing assertiveness is just a big a factor as Price's. Then of course, there's Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet, who have provided points when needed and provided the expected balance inside to Price's outside game.
Most importantly, however, with UConn's offensive improvement, the Huskies have found that swagger they needed. Dogged by questions of postseason failure for weeks, they have looked like the most impressive team in the tournament through two rounds. You can argue that others have faced tougher competition, but I wouldn't call Chattanooga or Texas A&M "poor teams." They're NCAA tournament teams and two of the best in their respective conferences. Chattanooga never really had a chance, even on paper, but UConn's ability to dominate Texas A&M speaks more to what the Huskies did than what the Aggies couldn't.
David: While UConn did lose a key part of their backcourt, they are playing some of their best ball at the right time. While Chattanooga and Texas A&M had a great year, they had no one to match-up with UConn's strong frontcourt. It didn't hurt that Price was draining shots from the perimeter, which makes this team even more deadly and both their opponents had poor shooting nights.
Justin: I think it was a little bit of both.
Chattanooga probably should have been in the play-in game, and although Texas A&M took down Mizzou in the regular season, they are a pretty bad offensive team that finished just 9-7 playing within a Big 12 that was pretty bad this year.
It was certainly a good way for the Huskies to set the tone in the tourney, and it really made everyone forget about Jerome Dyson and some of the losses recently.
But "recovery" also may be a bit much. Although they'd dropped two games to Pitt, and lost that whole soul-crushing six-overtime game to Syracuse, I don't think they've had two really poor performances in a row all season. Their toughest games just happened to coincide with the loss of Dyson.
At the same, though, I don't think anyone expected UConn to beat either team the way they did. The Huskies hadn't looked that impressive probably since blowing out Louisville in early February
T-Mill: This is a matchup of very versatile teams. It looks like you can run if you want to, but so can we. We can stop and play defense, but so can you. Which pace do you think favors which team?
Justin: I would have to say a fast one. Without Dyson, UConn doesn't have the outside shooters or anyone that can really create his own shot off the dribble in a halfcourt set.
Sure, A.J. Price can make some things happen, but after blowing out his ACL in last year's tourney, he's not the same; he just can't take over a game the way he used to. And you would think someone 7-foot-3 would be able to dominate in the post, but sadly, Hasheem Thabeet is plagued with what we call "Flubber hands" and he feels the need to put it on the floor every time even though he could just go on his tippy toes to dunk it. (Ed Note: this must be a cousin of Crisco hands, where the task of simply grabbing the basketball in open space becomes exceedingly difficult.)
But Coach Cal (what we call Jim Calhoun at The UConnBlog) talks every preseason about getting out and running. This season, I think they've done that. All seven rotation players, especially backup guard Kemba Walker, can run, and the team is at its best when they're running the floor and turning Thabeet blocks into easy transition points.
Matt: A fast-paced game favors UConn, not because Purdue can't run - and the Boilermakers can - but if the Huskies are running, that means they're rebounding and using the outlets. And if they're rebounding, then they're winning a battle that Purdue desperately needs in this game. (That also means another big game from JaJuan Johnson and a gritty effort from Robbie Hummel.)
UConn's halfcourt sets have looked 10 times more fluid and dangerous than they did even the week before in the Big East tournament, but if Purdue can force the Huskies to score the majority of their points in the halfcourt and late in the shot clock, it favors the Boilermakers. It will naturally create a lower scoring game, the same kind of contest Purdue has proven it can win in its late-season surge, and perhaps disrupt a UConn offense that has outscored tournament opponents by a combined 82 points.
Purdue is at its best when it is grinding things out. That's usually not the case in a track meet.
David: UConn wants a quick pace. The more chances they have at the basket, the better their chances of winning are. They'll use full court pressure to quicken the pace of the game. They've been really good at the half court game, but they make their runs in transition, and like to attack the defense before they settle. In the half court sets, Connecticut thrives against man-to-man defenses and plays the high-low with Adrien and Thabeet to perfection. It is in the zone that UConn tends to settle for bad perimeter shots and negates their advantage of their front court.
T-Mill: How much does the loss of Jerome Dyson effect your offense? Will it be a bigger deal agaisnt tougher competition this weekend?
David: The loss of Dyson hasn't affected their offense, as much as it has affected their defense. He was always matched up against the team's deadliest shooter and he had a knack of getting steals. If this team misses anything from Dyson's absence on offense it would be his ability to finish on the break and attack the zone with dribble penetration. Kemba Walker has emerged as UConn's best perimeter defense and Craig Austrie has put together back-to-back solid defensive games, and there has been enough time since Dyson's injury for this team to adjust for it not to make a major difference. The emergence of Stanley Robinson's offensive ability has also contributed to UConn's success without Dyson.
Justin: When Dyson went down, we all started to freak out a little. Big-time freshmen Ater Majok and Nate Miles were already forced out of the picture and backup center Charles Okwandu was ruled academically ineligible.
And for the reasons I mentioned before, it still affects the offense in a big way. But Dyson's loss has been eased somewhat by Stanley Robinson finally playing like everyone expected him to.
After almost three seasons of frustratingly inconsistent play, Robinson seems to have finally turned things around, having put up 28, 24 and 12 points the past three games. Losing Dyson hurts a lot, especially in a huge game like this. But Robinson may be able to help make up for what we lost in Dyson. Announcers point out his freakish athleticism about eight times a game, and finally, Stanley has turned it into productivity.
Matt: I may have already tipped my hand here, but Jerome Dyson's absence was the biggest story for UConn entering the tournament (other than their previous failed attempts to win in the postseason). Between UConn's offensive explosion and Jim Calhoun's health, the loss of Dyson has largely become an afterthought. If A.J. Price continues to provide a scorching presence from the outside and Stanley Robinson's emergence isn't limited to those first two games, UConn's offense will be as dynamic as it was last weekend. If Price has a tough shooting day, then the focus will likely turn inside, where Thabeet dominated against Chattanooga but was largely forgettable against Texas A&M.
Simply, with Dyson, UConn had a bevy of offensive options. Without him, the Huskies still do. It's about how well one part of the offense complements the other - with Stanley Robinson providing a dynamic presence in both areas.
T-Mill: Much has been made about the Big East being an all-powerful conference, while the media perceives the Big Ten as slightly above the SWAC at the moment. Do you believe UConn has reason to fear the Big Ten Boilers?
Matt: Of course UConn does. The Boilermakers won a conference that sent seven teams to the tournament, and are playing their best basketball at exactly the right time. Between Johnson, Hummel and E'Twaun Moore, they have weapons, and there's no reason to believe UConn is a shoe-in to advance. When it comes down to this particular game, conference ties mean little.
But I don't think anyone will argue that with five Sweet Sixteen teams, the Big East is the country's powerhouse conference, above the Big Ten, ACC, Big XII or any other league - SWAC included. That said, UConn will be favored here not because they played in the Big East but because they're UConn, one of the country's top teams with a top-five NBA draft pick in the middle, one of the country's most experienced guards at point and weapons around them.
David: UConn has struggled in games against Buffalo and Michigan, so they have a lot to fear from Purdue. In an one-and-done scenario, especially at this level, any team can beat each other. We, as a fan base, have experienced the David and Goliath fall with George Mason and San Diego still fresh on our minds. We fear the underdogs.
Justin: Well, to be honest, we've taken our shots on the Big Ten along with everyone else.
But with that being said, I'm terrified of the Boilermakers. JaJuan Johnson appears to be the type of player that can neutralize Thabeet, and Purdue has enough shooters on the outside to attack UConn's deficiencies guarding the perimeter. Combine all that with a defense that looks and has a reputation of being really tough, and Purdue has the type of team that has a legitimate shot at derailing another Coach Cal five-year plan. (We won our other two titles in 1999 and 2004.) (Ed, Note: What is he, Joseph Stalin? Is this a purge?)
T-Mill: What scenario on Thursday would have you the most nervous? Which would have you the most confident?
David: Thabeet in early foul trouble, Price missing the outside shot, and Purdue shooters having a lights out performance. That would be a recipe for a UConn disaster. For UConn to be successful, they need to make their free throws, have their front court stay out of foul trouble, shut down the perimeter shot, and need to make at least four three pointers to keep the defense honest.
Matt: If I was a UConn fan, I would be nervous if Purdue is rebounding with the Huskies, Hasheem Thabeet gets in early foul trouble and A.J. Price hits a cold streak. On the other hand, you won't find a team or fan base more confident than UConn right now considering what it did in the first two rounds. If the Huskies continue to do what they did against Chattanooga and Texas A&M - play well early, put together a big run at some point and continue to pound the glass and the scoreboard - then Purdue will have to do something extraordinary to pull the upset.
Justin: Considering all the problems we've had to overcome this season, anything that isn't a 20-0 lead to open the game would make me nervous. And even then I would be preparing for the bottom to fall out.
Worst-case scenario, though, is Johnson having success taking it at Thabeet, Hummel and E'Twaun Moore lighting it up from outside and Purdue slowing the game down and forcing UConn to win in the halfcourt.
Best-case is for the Huskies to come out hot, establish the inside game with Thabeet and Jeff Adrien early, have Price drain a few threes to stretch the floor and then for Robinson to play like he has the past few weeks and scream obnoxiously loud on authoritative dunks (you'll get that joke soon enough).
But that probably won't happen, so I just hope this team has enough fire power and enough grit to grind out what should be a tough matchup. One I can't wait to see.
T-Mill: Thanks guys! It sounds like we are all in agreement on what each team needs to do here. It may boil down to who is on their game that night, though UConn can likely survive being off more than Purdue.