After losing four straight games by a combined 17 points, Dan Hurley’s Huskies figured out what they need to do win games
“We found our recipe to try and get a win, we just have to win by a lot,” Hurley joked after Wednesday night’s 15-point win over Temple.
UConn (11-9, 2-5 The American) hangs its hat on its defensive play. Its 6.8 blocks per game rank second in the country, anchored by freshman Akok Akok’s three swats per contest. As a team, the Huskies rank 31st in the NCAA in defensive efficiency according to teamrankings.com.
The defensive presence is key as the Huskies have yet to find their groove on the offensive end of the floor. The team’s 41.5 shooting percentage leaves room for improvement, especially after Wednesday’s 35% showing.
Since Tyler Polley was ruled out for the season just before the Wichita State game, UConn is has made 26 of its 108 attempts from beyond the arc, or 24%. Teams have taken notice and have allowed the Huskies to take open shots from deep, especially Tulsa who played a zone defense in their overtime win at the XL Center last Sunday.
“The Tyler injury, which was devastating to us, that had a bad effect on the team,” Hurley said Wednesday. “We would’ve won two of the last four if Tyler was out there for us.”
So what was the key in Wednesday’s win? Great defense and minimizing turnovers. The Huskies had a turnover problem earlier in the season, turning in back-to-back performances with over 20 giveaways. The last two times out, UConn hasn’t given the ball away more than 10 times.
“We didn’t make a lot of mistakes. We didn’t turn the ball over a lot,” Hurley said. “Even if you shoot a low percentage from the field, you can get a win when you’re not turning the ball over.”
While he has not looked quite like the sniper of late that UConn fans expect, Christian Vital has helped nullify the turnover problem with his quick hands on defense. The senior guard, who leads the team in scoring (14.1) and rebounding (6.9), is tied for 11th in the country in steals per game (2.45) and swiped the ball away four times against in the Owls.
“I get on him a lot about his shot selection,” Hurley said. “If we get that version of Christian where it’s really good shot selection, tremendous defensively, rebounding the ball, we’ll have a chance to win. He played a really good game for a guy who shot 3-for-11.”
Defense will be the name of the game when the conference’s No.6 and No. 8 teams square off. Memphis (15-5, 4-3 The American) ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency. The Tigers’ 167 steals are the 49th most in college basketball and their 6.4 blocks per game are just a few spots below the Huskies at No. 5.
Memphis lost the top recruit in the nation after James Wiseman was suspended by the NCAA and ultimately left the school to prepare for the NBA Draft. But that hasn’t deterred Penny Hardaway from sending out five freshmen for the opening tip regularly—he worked hard to bring in the top recruiting class of the past year.
The Tigers get more than 25 points per game between their frontcourt duo of Precious Achiuwa and D.J. Jeffries. The 6-foot-9, 225-pound Achiuwa brings in 10 rebounds a game and has 38 blocks on the year. He and UConn’s Akok will likely be the matchup to watch on Saturday. The two come in at the same height, though Achuiwa has a 32-pound weight advantage. Akok, however, has 23 more blocks than his rookie counterpart.
In the backcourt, Vital and the new Huskies’ starting point guard, Jalen Gaffney, will be tasked with slowing down Boogie Ellis and Damion Bough. The backcourt tandem combines for 12 points a night and five assists, but each is responsible for more than 20 steals on the year.
Lots of the conference’s youth will be on display Saturday afternoon with the Huskies now starting all three available freshmen. Expect to see eight rookies on the court for the 1 p.m. tip-off.