The 2013-2014 UConn Huskies were a solid team coming into last season's NCAA tournament. Kevin Ollie's team finished the regular season 24-7, and lost in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship game to Louisville.
In its first game of the NCAA tournament, UConn struggled defensively and needed overtime to beat Saint Joseph's. But after that rocky first game, the Huskies just kept winning, beating Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Florida, and Kentucky to win the NCAA championship. No one saw that coming.
The 2014-2015 iteration of the Huskies have a very different roster. Four of the top five players on last season's team in terms of minutes played are gone. But that doesn't mean that the UConn roster is depleted. Ollie still has star point senior guard Ryan Boatright, a top freshman recruit, and an imposing front line.
This won't exactly be a cakewalk for Texas. A trip to Storrs never is.
A season ago, UConn guard Ryan Boatright shared the backcourt with the great Shabazz Napier. This year, the Huskies are Boatright's team. He is the focal point of Kevin Ollie's offense, rarely leaving the court and playing with the ball most of the time.
Boatright has become an extremely dangerous player. A season ago, the 6-0 guard was an effective three point shooter who struggled to finish near the hoop. So far this season, Boatright has done well when attacking the basket, converting 70 percent of his layups, compared with only 47 percent last season.
Some of this apparent improvement is surely a sample size effect; it is exceedingly rare for a six foot tall guard to finish 70 percent of his shots near the rim over an entire season. Add in the fact that the Huskies have yet to match up against a team with a strong rim protector, and this number seems likely to come down. It seems exceptionally unlikely that Boatright will convert around the basket at such a high rate against the huge front line of Texas.
But still, the guy is fearless going to the basket, and does so far look to be figuring out how to get the ball up in the land of the giants.
One thing Boatright has not done well so far this season is shoot the three. On the year, he is 4-16 from distance. Don't expect this to continue; the UConn senior is a career 35 percent three point shooter. So while he is unlikely to hurt Texas as much going to the basket, he is more than capable of making it up from long range.
Texas will almost surely throw defensive stopper Demarcus Holland at Boatright, and try to make life hard for UConn's most important player.
The Rest of the Perimeter Players
North Carolina State transfer Rodney Purvis has the potential to be a solid complementary guard. At NC State, he did most of his damage offensively shooting threes and scoring in transition. Through his first four games at UConn, Purvis has struggled, but that has mostly been due to the fact that his threes haven't yet started falling.
A player who has shot the ball well for the Huskies is 6-7 freshman Daniel Hamilton. Hamilton is the younger brother of former Texas forward Jordan Hamilton. Like his older brother, Hamilton is a tall three point shooter who isn't shy about mixing it up on the defensive glass. Through four games, Hamilton is 9-16 from three point range, but has struggled with turnovers.
Ollie will also give significant minutes to 6-4 Terrence Samuel and 6-4 Sam Cassell Jr. Both players are more likely to take secondary offensive roles while on the floor, deferring to Boatright and Purvis.
The Connecticut Front Line
One of the keys to UConn's 2014 NCAA tournament run was great interior defense. After a round of 64 win over Saint Joseph's where the Hawks converted on 60 percent of their twos, no UConn opponent shot better than 50 percent from inside the arc for the rest of the tournament.
Over the course of the 2013-2014 season, Connecticut opponents only managed to convert on 42 percent of their two point shot attempts. This solid interior defensive performance was in no small part due to the fact that Kevin Ollie has at his disposal one of the best shot blockers in the nation. While UConn center Amida Brimah has been compared to Prince Ibeh in Longhorn corners of the internet, the truth is that Brimah is a better player. Brimah blocks and affects more shots than Ibeh, and while Brimah's offensive game is frequently described as "raw," he has some ability to score on the block, finishes well around the rim, and is an adequate free throw shooter. Over his college career, opponents have averaged under 40 percent shooting from two point range when Brimah is on the floor.
Where Brimah is clearly lacking relative to Texas big men Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh is in the physical strength department. Brimah is rail thin, although he does appear to have improved his strength some during the off season. Still, he has not yet had to match up against players quite as physical as the Texas big men. The only way he is moving Ridley off the block tomorrow is with a Bobcat.
Kentan Facey and Phillip Nolan will also play in the front court for Ollie. Facey has played more so far this season; he is active on the glass at both ends of the floor. Nolan had a solid sophomore season in a part-time role a year ago, but at least it seems so far that Facey is beating him out for minutes, keeping Nolan on the bench for large portions of the game.
At least on paper, the UConn front line matches up well with the height of Texas. Hamilton, who plays the wing, is 6-7. Brimah is 7-0. Nolan and Facey are 6-10 and 6-9, respectively.
The Texas Longhorns have an outstanding chance to pick up their first road win tomorrow, against an NCAA tournament team. While UConn lost several of its most important players from last season's national title winning squad, there is still more than enough talent in Storrs to challenge and defeat Texas.