by Kevin O'Neill
Connecticut is one of six teams fighting for the three unclaimed spots in the standings that will earn a bye into the second round of next week’s Big East Tournament. Three of those teams – West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Georgetown – are 10-7. The remaining three – Connecticut, Villanova, and Marquette – are 9-8 and need a win and some help to make the top 8.
Notre Dame has secured at least a second place finish and a double bye in the BET, but the Fighting Irish have their eyes on one more regular season prize – a first place finish in the conference. If they win and Pittsburgh loses, the two teams will finish the schedule tied for first place; and ND owns the tie breaker. Notre Dame will try to stake its claim at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon. Pitt’s game is at 4:00.
Other than that, neither team has a reason to play hard in the regular season finale. Fun, isn’t it?
What you need to know about Connecticut
- #8 scoring offense in the Big East, 67.9 ppg
- #10 scoring defense in the Big East, 67.2 ppg
- #5 free throw percentage in the Big East, 71.8%
- #14 field goal percentage in the Bg East, 41.2%
- #3 field goal percentage defense in the Big East, 40.8%
- #12 three-point percentage in the Big East, 32.7%
- #11 rebounding margin in the Big East, -0.3
- #8 assists per game in the Big East, 13.8 (tied with Georgetown)
- #11 turnover margin in the Big East, -0.7
- #6 assists/turnover ratio in the Big East, 1.2
UConn has lost three of its last four games including an overtime home loss to Marquette. In each loss, the Huskies shot poorly – 37% from the field against West Virginia, 37% against Louisville, and 36% against Marquette. In the victory over Cincinnati, they made 50% of their shots. UConn has been a better three point shooting team on the road (36%) than at home (29%), but it attempts more threes per game at home.
Junior guard Kemba Walker, a Big East Player of the Year candidate, is UConn’s leading scorer with a 21.0 scoring average, 2nd in the Big East. Walker is a fine all-around basketball player – 5.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and a 2.5 assist/turnover ratio – but he is often a low percentage shooter, sometimes to the detriment of the UConn offense. He has made 41% of his two point shots and 33% of his threes while taking nearly twice as many shots as the #2 guy on the team. Walker is, however, capable of hot streaks; so an opponent must account for him at all times.
Walker’s mates in the starting lineup are young, talented, and improving. Freshman swingman Jeremy Lamb (10.9 points), guard Shabazz Napier (8.2), and forward Roscoe Smith (5.6) are intermittently brilliant and callow; but they are well past awed by the level of competition and the speed of the game. 6’9″ sophomore Alex Oriakhi completes the starting five with a 9 point, 7 rebound contribution. 7’0″ Charles Okwandu and 6’7″ Jamal Coombs-McDaniel add some size off the bench if not a lot of scoring and rebounding.
What you need to know about Notre Dame
- #3 scoring offense in the Big East, 71.8 ppg
- #9 scoring defense in the Big East, 66.9 ppg
- #6 free throw percentage in the Big East, 71.5%
- #1 field goal percentage in the Big East, 46.6% (tied with Pittsburgh)
- #9 field goal percentage defense in the Big East, 42.8%
- #1 three-point percentage in the Big East, 40.3%
- #4 rebounding margin in the Big East, +1.5 (tied with Cincinnati)
- #4 assists per game in the Big East, 15.4 per game
- #10 turnover margin in the Big East, -0.5
- #1 assist/turnover ratio in the Big East, 1.4 (tied with West Virginia)
Notre Dame has its own Player of the Year candidate, senior Ben Hansbrough. Hansbrough has built a 20.6 point scoring average (3rd in the conference) by making 41% of his three point attempts and a power forward-like 57% of his shots inside the arc. His season stat line also includes 4.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, a 1.9 assist/turnover ratio, and 85% free throw shooting.
Tim Abromaitis (14.9 points), Carleton Scott (10.0), Scott Martin (9.8), and Ty Nash (9.1) complete the starting lineup as well as most of the team’s scoring. Scott is the team’s leading rebounder with 7.7 per game, 4th in the conference. Hot shooting has Abromaitis’ three point percentage at 49.4% after a slow outside shooting start to the conference season. Jack Cooley brings bulk, toughness, and occasional scoring outbursts off the bench, and Eric Atkins continues to lead the conference with his 2.7 assist/turnover ratio.
These two teams played a terrific basketball game in South Bend at the beginning of January. The Irish prevailed 73-70 with UConn missing a three to tie at the Buzzer. The teams combined for a meager 6 fast break points, but they played intense, fast paced halfcourt offense and physical defense. The teams passed well, shot reasonably well, and contested every rebound.
Expect more of the same this time.
The first key to the game will be ND’s ability to defend the three guards in UConn’s lineup. Hansbrough vs. Walker seems like a natural matchup, but that leaves quick 6’0″ Napier to a forward unless Atkins is in the game. Martin has done well when assigned to high scoring guards throughout the season, so don’t be surprised to see him get the first crack at Walker.
The second key to the game is pace. UConn, not the most patient team in the conference, will run whenever it can and get frustrated when it can’t. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is comfortable running the shot clock whether intentionally via its burn offense or simply because it takes that long to get a good shot. Expect UConn to try to make it a fast game from the opening tip. It’s good news for ND if that doesn’t work.
- #8 Notre Dame (24-5/13-4) at #16 Connecticut (21-8/9-8)
- Saturday, March 5th at 2:00PM (ET)
- Gampel Pavillion, Storrs, CT
- Television: ESPN
- Internet: ESPN3.com
(Note: All cited statistics are for conference games through Thursday, March 3rd
- Kevin O’Neill