For the Huskies perspective on this game, make sure to visit the always-excellent The UCONN Blog.
The University of Texas Longhorns basketball team is 11-2 heading into Saturday's match up with the UCONN Huskies. Fans undoubtedly remember last season's trip to Storrs, when the No. 1 ranked Longhorns started fast only to get run out of the gym in the second half, their second straight defeat as the nation's top-ranked team.
Heading into Saturday's rematch, the roles this year are reversed. It is UCONN that is traveling on the road as the highly ranked squad recently exposed. The Huskies have dropped two of their last three, losing to both Pitt and Notre Dame on the road in the last two weeks. Texas, meanwhile, is finding its groove, having won six straight since the discouraging loss to USC, including back-to-back road wins over North Carolina and Michigan State, with a thorough blowout of Arkansas to cap things off.
In terms of the stakes of this game, there's not all that much on the line in this one, and as a fellow diehard and I were discussing this afternoon, a loss to UCONN might be more discouraging than a win would be reason for excitement. Nevertheless, this one still feels like an important game for the Horns, because while those who are truly paying close attention might not overvalue a home win over UCONN, this is a game that will be the center of attention on the weekend and, with a victory, would likely launch the Longhorns into the Top 10 heading into conference play. In terms of resume padding, this is a win that is likely to count for something.
The tricky thing about this match up is that while it's fair to say that UCONN is overrated and that a win won't mean as much as their ranking suggests (much as their win over us last year didn't mean as much to them as it seemed at the time), the Huskies are plenty talented enough that if they play well they can very easily win the game. UCONN is a team full of great athletes who aren't great basketball players, but if enough of them have a good day, they're a very formidable team. Especially if Kemba Walker -- who is a great basketball player -- is finding success.
Kemba Walker -- that's the name Texas fans need to know. He's a streaky, but legitimate, shooter from the outside who is exceptionally difficult to defend because he can put it on the floor and create looks both for himself and his teammates. At his best, he can take over a game and break down a defense on his own, but UCONN has become a bit overly-dependent on the junior guard, such that as he goes, so goes the team. To develop into a more dangerous team, UCONN needs to be more diverse, as their recent losses to Pitt and Notre Dame have made clear.
With that in mind, after the jump I offer five keys to Saturday's game...
1. Make Kemba Walker earn it. This one's obvious enough, but it's worth discussing in some detail. Following their recent struggles, Texas won't have the luxury of being one of the teams UCONN has to fail against to learn that they can't be a one-man-team, but it's not only still the case that Walker can single-handedly lift the Huskies to victory, but that his doing so still represents the Huskies most likely path to victory. Texas would be well-served to take away Walker's penetration by whatever means possible and force him to shoot long jumpers. If he's feeling it, we can adjust, but disallowing him from breaking us down on the dribble drive has to be priority number one.
I'd guard Walker with Balbay to start the game and Joseph when Balbay is subbed for J'Covan, and instruct whomever his defending him to concede the three point shot until he proves we can't afford to do so. And I'd suggest Texas play underneath ball screens for Walker until he proves we can't, and/or switching everything on the perimeter. Bottom line, though: Texas needs to be defensively focused on making Walker a jump shooter and UCONN play team basketball. If Walker and/or the team proves up to conquering that challenge, we can adjust, but that has to be the tactical play.
2. Attack the defense. The Huskies are an athletic, but defensively undisciplined bunch who will put you on the stripe if you challenge. Similarly to the strategy outlined above, UCONN will be best served if they can force Texas into becoming a passive, jump shooting team. This is a good shooting Texas team, so that's not a strategy that's guaranteed to succeed (just as forcing Walker to hit jumpers isn't), but it's better to force us to prove we're up to the task. Our offense is at its best when it is decisively attacking a defense, be it in the open court in transition or in our improved half-court approach, but as exciting as the early results have been, it's easy to see how this Texas offense could struggle against a team that corralled it into settling for jumpers. Which is one of the most important reasons why I think J'Covan Brown is so important to this team. He's the antidote when we start to settle into vanilla offense.
3. Transition offense. Part and parcel with the above is the need for Texas to continue to strive to be aggressive in finding transition offense. Rick Barnes clearly gets it, it's something at which we excel, and there's no reason to expect us to shy away from it. But it's important, and it's worth emphasizing. Last year UCONN got the better of Texas in large part because of superior transition basketball, and we'll need to return the favor Saturday to ensure a win.
4. Positive performances from Matt Hill and/or Alexis Wangmene. I won't go so far as to suggest Texas needs both guys to play well, but if both play terribly, I could see Texas having some problems. In part, the importance of one of these two playing solidly has to do with Thompson, who will be playing against the kind of elite athletes that can give even the most talented of true freshmen troubles. Should Thompson struggle a la North Carolina, Texas will need positive contributions from another frontcourt player. That doesn't mean big time scoring - just positive play. Like Wangmene's rebounding effort against North Carolina. If Thompson grooves without a bother, this isn't so important, but that won't be a sure thing against such quality athletes (even though UCONN's frontcourt isn't special).
5. Capitalize on our advantages. Finally, it's worth stating explicitly that Texas' advantages in this game are basketball advantages. That is, they aren't athletic advantages, or raw talent advantages. We're competing with an equal here, our advantages relating entirely to our superiority in basketball-specific measures. Which is to say, those advantages have to be played, because they won't just happen, as they would against a team that can't keep up. UCONN can keep up.
But I think they will struggle from being outplayed. And that means that there's an important element for Rick Barnes to play in this game. We must have the right approach to this contest. We must have an understanding of what it is we want to do, why we want to do it, and how we intend to get it done. If we do that and have a bad day, we still might lose, but a loss is much more likely to result from failing to have that understanding in approach. Everything we've seen from Rick Barnes in his handling of this year's team suggests we'll tackle this game as it should be tackled, but a failure in that regard Saturday would be both our most likely path to a loss and a forceful braking on the season's ceiling.
All told, I'm convinced that Texas should and will win this game, but I love the specific challenges that UCONN presents. They are good enough to win based purely on talent, and they are good enough to win if we simply fail to capitalize on our advantages. In other words, winning will require us either to play very well ourselves or, at the least, to play to our advantages to secure a quality home win that confirms we are a Sweet 16-type team.
Prediction: TEXAS 77 UCONN 71