Five days ago against Wichita State, the UConn men’s basketball team struggled to keep the No. 22 team in the nation from doing what they do best: rebound and score. The Huskies gave up 42 rebounds (15 offensive) and only grabbed 24 boards themselves, and they let the game get out of hand early, allowing the Shockers to sink nine of 18 3-point attempts in the first half alone.
As UConn (12-13, 5-7 The American) prepares for a rematch against Tulsa (14-10, 7-5 The American) at the XL Center at 7 p.m., the goal is simple: Play tough defense. Surprisingly, scoring isn’t the biggest issue – they shot 44.4 percent from the field in the first half and out-scored Wichita State 41-40 in the second half. And when head coach Kevin Ollie was asked what the team needs to do to beat the Golden Hurricane, there was no hesitation in his answer.
“We gotta play solid defense. We gotta rebound the basketball,” Ollie said. “That’s been our main focus, trying to beat the zone down the court. And we have to rebound first to do that.”
Tulsa, much like UConn, has struggled against the top teams in the conference, but they had the Huskies’ number in their last matchup more than a month ago. The Golden Hurricane came out on top in double-overtime, 90-88, largely due to some great 3-point shooting down the stretch and their ability to capitalize off UConn’s mistakes.
The Huskies have not been turning the ball over at the same rate they once were, but their new mistakes are a lot more egregious— like four people going up for a rebound and not a single person touching the ball. Ollie said he hopes the team is following his lead in practice, but when it comes to an in-game strategy, it all comes down to execution.
“We just gotta hit first. Sometimes we turn around and we just look at the rim or we look at the flight of the basketball and then [the other team is] pushing us underneath and getting rebounds,” Ollie said. “Some of it is blow-bys, sometimes it’s our defense getting blow-bys and then we’re in rotation and it throws off the timing, and you’re not body-to-body. But most of the time, if we’re playing solid defense, when a shot goes up, we usually get the rebound. It’s when we get broken down one-on-one defense and we gotta over-help and when a shot goes up, we’re out of position.”
UConn has lost six of its last eight games, but tonight’s contest is one of two relatively easy games remaining on the schedule—they will play ECU on Sunday before closing out the year against Cincinnati, Memphis, Temple and Houston. The Huskies have used 17 different starting lineups this season and could potentially use an 18th if Ollie decides to start Kwintin Williams, who recorded 24 minutes against Wichita State and impressed with his energy.
“I’m just trying to bring a lot of energy and do whatever I can to help the team, whatever that entails,” Williams said. “It’s very frustrating [not getting playing time], but it’s not my decision. It’s up to the coaches, and I’m just here to do whatever they need me to do.”
Tulsa has won four of its last five, including wins over Memphis and SMU, and freshman Junior Etou and been leading the charge, averaging 17.6 points in his last three games. He leads Tulsa in scoring with 15.5 points per game, shoots 48 percent from the floor and averages eight rebounds per game.
“Etou is playing out of his mind, shooting the ball very well. He’s shooting 47 percent from the three, they move him around all over the place,” Ollie said. “They just been rebounding. You know, we got to watch out for [Corey Henderson], he’s a live wire behind the three and [Sterling Taplin] really controls the pace of the game, so we gotta make sure we control him also.”