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Texas at UConn Basketball Preview: Keys to the Game

A look at what could be decisive factors in the Longhorns' trip to Storrs on Sunday to face UConn.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff has already provided a typically excellent primer on the roster of the defending national champs, and if you haven't been briefed on the Husky personnel yet: go now and read, then come back. We'll wait.

Alright, now that we know who's who, let's spend a few minutes analyzing some of the key elements of this match up and what Texas will be challenged to do if it hopes to earn a rare win for the road team in Storrs.

1.  Limit Boatright Penetration

Defenses trying to contain UConn last year found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea: extend your defense to 20 feet to limit the Huskies' lethal outside shooters and you got victimized by dribble penetration from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.  Alternatively, pack in your defense to limit dribble penetration and UConn made it rain three-pointers.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, it turns out that having two point guards who possess elite handles, the ability to to score, draw fouls, and set up teammates off dribble penetration, and the ability to stroke it at 35% or better from long range is effective.

As detailed in Jeff's roster profile, the Huskies actually lost four key players from last year's squad -- Napier being one of them, which means that heading into his third year as UConn's head coach, Kevin Ollie will for the first time in his young career only have one unfairly dangerous point guard to work with. I would have loved to watch Boatright and Taylor dual for 40 minutes, but the wrist injury to the Longhorns' dynamic point guard changes the dynamic of this match up -- in ways that generally benefit the Huskies, unfortunately.

With a shorter bench and absent their quickest player, Texas will be slightly more vulnerable to dribble penetration, which in my mind has to be the focal point of Texas' entire defensive strategy on Sunday. The calculus is pretty simple when UConn is shooting the ball like they have been in the early going, having made just 31% of their three-point attempts, after ripping the nets at a 39% clip a year ago. Unfortunately, there are some good reasons to believe that UConn's a good bit better than they've shot across their first four games (three of which were played in San Juan, Puerto Rico), and a return to the familiar confines of Storrs may be just what the Huskies need to get rolling from the perimeter again.

You can be certain that Texas will open the game with Demarcus Holland on Boatright, but while the All-Big 12 defender is certainly the best option that we have, I have my doubts about his ability to keep Boatright out of the lane on his own, and that's not meant to slight Holland. I mean... look at this ridiculousness:

Seriously ridiculous, right? Watching Boatright's highlight reels feels exactly like watching an And1 Mixtape: you keep expecting some dude with a microphone to run out on the court yelling about the ridiculousness.

Keeping as explosive a penetrator as Boatright in check can't be done with one defender; it requires great team defense, and that's where we'll win or lose the game defensively. To some extent, we're going to have to cede some jump shots in order to protect the paint, and if UConn has a blistering afternoon shooting from deep, you tip your cap. It's important that our defenders are crisp and anticipatory in their rotations, though, and there's a big difference between a lightly contested three and a look that goes completely unchallenged.

Help and recover will be the name of the game on defense. Help to keep the Huskies from getting into the paint by breaking us down on the dribble, and rotate/recover to contest shooters when help gets trapped inside. Simple to say, difficult to do.

2.  Know Your Foe

As you'd expect from a team replacing four key players, the Huskies are finding offense a bit harder to come by in the early going this season. There's plenty of upside as the younger players mature and the group begins to jell, but watching the Huskies loss to West Virginia in the Puerto Rico Tip Off, in observing the ways that UConn's offense is less dynamic right now than it was a year ago, I was struck by how much the Huskies depend on getting offense out of their base set plays.

That's not necessarily a good or bad thing, just something worth noting and watching for on Sunday afternoon. Texas's advance scouting is exponentially more in depth than my collection of notes from watching a single game, so in theory we should be reasonably well prepared to recognize and appropriately react to a number of UConn's go-to sets, two of which I'll mention here.

UConn baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) play vs man defense

The Huskies' staple BLOB play is a misdirection play that utilizes an initial screen to get Boatright space to move, and a reverse cut and secondary back screen to free him for an open jumper.

UConn BLOB Play vs M2M

It's a nicely designed play, because if you defend to take away the Boatright jumper, you're vulnerable to a cut to the basket either by Boatright (1) or the center (5). UConn runs this play well and it's typically set up for Boatright to get the jumper, but I've seen them run it to get Hamilton that look as well.

Speaking of Hamilton...

UConn halfcourt offense versus 2-3 zone

The Huskies absolutely crushed zone defenses last year with their outstanding outside shooting and two guards who understood how to deflate the zone by attacking its middle. Their base offense against zone defense is an overload variant that runs the wing along the baseline to the play side:

UConn Halfcourt Offense vs Zone

The play is designed to get the defense to compromise perimeter integrity in the corner. The play begins with Boatright dribbling to attack the center of the zone.  As the defense constricts to cut off the penetration, Boatright kicks it to the 2 guard, who quickly dribbles around a high ball screen set by the 4. The constricted zone is now in a compromised position: the defender I have circled in burnt orange has to step up to contest the 2, but he can't do that and be in the corner to defend the 3, who's joined the party from the other side of the court during all this. And if you bring your center zone defender up too high to help, UConn just lobs the ball over the top to the 5 for an easy flush.

3. Shot Distribution

A good shot is a good shot is a good shot, and to a man, when the offense creates a quality look for any one of our players, the shot should go up. Passing up quality looks is no better than failing to create a quality look at all.

That said, it will behoove us to try to generate a higher percentage of those quality looks for the players who deliver the most value when they shoot it.  Likewise, the more we can consolidate our quality looks around the rim and beyond the arc, the better off we'll be.

You probably don't need a data chart to understand which players are and are not scoring efficiently -- odds are your eyes have already told you everything that this data is about to tell you. The data is nonetheless useful in providing clarity as to who's taking which shots and from where.

TEXAS LONGHORNS BASKETBALL SHOT DISTRIBUTION THROUGH 11-28-14

There's lots of interesting stuff in there that we could talk about, but for present purposes I mainly wanted to highlight the importance of maximizing the opportunities with our most effective options. Fans gripe a lot when Felix shoots it too much, which is fair, but it's also incumbent on some other guys to look for offense when it's there. Connor Lammert, I'm looking at you.

Prediction

It's about game time, so let's wrap this up and hope we're up for today's challenge. I think Texas has the better team overall, particularly with Taylor.  Without him? I'm more concerned about Texas struggling with turnovers and halfcourt offense and our guard depth doesn't play well in this match up: Croaker's defense is an invitation for a UConn scoring run and Barnett probably isn't ready for extended minutes in Storrs.

That's putting an awful lot on Felix, Holland, and Yancy, and it's the play of the latter two on whom this game will turn. If the Holland and Yancy of the first five games of the season show up today in Storrs, we'll be just fine. A poor performance from either player -- hardly unthinkable on the road at UConn -- worries me that we'd settle into a Felix-versus-the-world jackfest. That won't get us very far, and though I think Barnes knows that, sometimes teams just fall apart on the road and it doesn't matter what you tell them to do.

That's what happened in Lawrence last year, and Manhattan the year before. It could happen today in Storrs, but I'm optimistic we're ready to compete for this win today.  UConn has size, but I like our frontcourt better, and if Myles Turner and Connor Lammert can each step up to give us double digit scoring, I like our chances to win even without Taylor. I'll be watching the play of those two, how well we keep Boatright out of the lane, and our ability to do so without leaving Hamilton to shoot totally uncontested.  If we earn passing grades in each of those three areas, I like our chances to get to 6-0. I'll roll with the good guys, until they show me I shouldn't: Texas 71 UConn 66