It’s been five years, but the UConn Huskies are finally back in March Madness. After a 15-7 season, including an 11-6 Big East regular-season record and trip to the semifinals in the conference tournament, UConn is a No. 7 seed.
The Huskies find themselves in the East region, taking on the No. 10 Maryland Terrapins in the first round.
“We had two goals going into the season, two major things we wanted to accomplish,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “First year back in the Big East we wanted compete at the top of the league. We were able to do that in the regular season … and then making the NCAA Tournament were really our two main goals for the year. That was a big step forward for our program.”
Maryland finished the season 16-13 overall with a 9-11 record in conference play, good for No. 9 in the Big 10. The Terps picked up one win in the conference tournament, beating Michigan State before falling to Michigan, who ended up as the No. 1 seed in the East region.
The Terps’ season has had its ups and downs. They’ve picked up some good wins, including a pair against tournament team Michigan State, one against tournament team Rutgers and one against tournament team Purdue. The best one of all one came against Illinois, now the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region.
However, they’ve also had their fair share of bad losses. The Terps lost both games vs. Penn State, who finished No. 11 in the conference and lost one to Northwestern who finished No. 12.
The Terps are one of the shorter teams UConn will play this season, regularly running out a starting-five with no player taller than 6-foot-7. In fact, they have just two players on the roster who are 6-foot-9 or taller, and neither of them see any significant playing time if any. Galin Smith, who is 6-foot-9, averaged just 14.2 minutes per game this season — and less than that during the Big Ten Tournament. Chol Marial, who is 7-foot-2, averaged just 6.5 minutes, and hasn’t seen the court in over a month.
The Terps rely on a lineup with five players all between either 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7 in height.
“It’s definitely not the type of conventional team you see,” Hurley said.
Eric Ayala leads them in scoring, averaging 14.9 points per game on 43.4% shooting from the field and 33.5% shooting from three. Aaron Wiggins (no relation to Andrew) is right behind him, averaging 14.0 points per game on 43.3% shooting from the field and 32.9% shooting from 3.
Nick Albicocco, a writer for the University of Maryland’s student newspaper “The Diamondback,” shared some thoughts over email on how Ayala and Wiggins are the key to the Terps’ chances.
“If Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala are shooting well, the Terps will win,” Albicocco said. “The two wild cards in my opinion is the play of Donta Scott and the ability to limit Bouknight. The Terps often lack a quality third option and need Scott to step up if Wiggins or Ayala struggle. If he provides at least 12-14 points, Maryland will have a legitimate chance of winning.”
Donta Scott — who stands at 6-foot-7 and is the de facto center of the group — is the only other Terp to average in the double digits, putting up 10.9 points on 49.5% shooting from the field and 43.4% shooting from 3. He also averages 6.1 rebounds, a team-high.
Darryl Morsell, the only senior out of the starters, averages 9 points per game on 48.8% shooting from the field and 26.0% shooting from 3. Morsell also leads the team with 2.8 assists per game and took home Big Ten defensive player of the year honors.
“He has the ability to lock up or at least limit Bouknight and make it a long night for any UConn player,” Albicocco said. “While he’s not an offensive star, he’s much more of a threat than he was as an underclassmen.”
Hakim Hart rounds out the starting five, averaging 7.1 points on 44.0% shooting from the field and 33.7% shooting from three.
Jairus Hamilton, the sixth-man and the only other Terp to see over 20 minutes of action per game, is the tallest of the bunch at 6-foot-8. Hamilton averages 6.8 points per game on 45.7% shooting from the field and 43.9% shooting from 3.
Out of the six main players on Maryland, all of them can shoot the 3 — they do so to varying degrees of effectiveness — but they’ve all taken at least 50 on the season.
If UConn’s going to win, they’re going to need to abuse their height advantage. If both Isaiah Whaley and Adama Sanogo start, UConn will have two players standing 6-foot-9 on the court together. Tyler Polley, also 6-foot-9, is a lock to come off the bench, and Josh Carlton, who is 6-foot-11, will also likely see some decent minutes as well.
Aside from R.J. Cole, UConn even has tall guards, with James Bouknight standing at 6-foot-5 and Tyrese Martin standing at 6-foot-6, right on par with the entire Maryland lineup.
UConn’s outside shooting has been inconsistent this season, but they have an opportunity to pound the ball inside vs. Maryland and really take advantage of the height they will have.
“The best way the Terps try to counter UConn’s height advantage is by starting Galin Smith at the 5 and Donta Scott at the 4,” Albicocco said. “These two, along with Jairus Hamilton, are the tallest players in UMD’s rotation since Coach Turgeon removed 7’2″ Chol Marial from the rotation. The Terps will still be at a height disadvantage but it’s their best chance of matching up with UConn.”
If the Huskies are to advance, they would face the winner of the matchup between No. 2 Alabama and No. 15 Iona.