As you may have heard, the Buffs made the NCAA Tournament. As an 8-seed, the Buffs' first round matchup will be with the Connecticut Huskies, who should be seeded higher than a 9. After their majestic gallop through the AAC tournament, SB Nation's Bracketology had them as a 7-seed, playing Oregon State. Hi Ho.
Connecticut is (automatically) here in the tournament because they won the American Athletic Conference is stunning fashion. They finished the regular season at 21-10 with impressive wins over Michigan, Texas and SMU. However, the AAC was so meh this year that the Huskies were on the outside looking in, per ESPN's Joe Lunardi. SB Nation's Bracketology had Connecticut as a 10-seed ... playing Colorado. Considering the Huskies had just been blown out by an SMU team (sans Keith Frazier) playing for nothing but pride, a first round AAC loss to Cincinnati would've damaged their hopes immensely.*
Then Jalen Adams did the impossible.
Connecticut beat Cincinnati in the fourth overtime and rode that hot streak to blow out wins over Temple and Memphis, respectively. As such, the Huskies run has induced flashbacks to Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker as everyone is picking them over the Buffs.
First off, I would love to come out and say that I am not all that impressed by wins over Temple and Memphis. Temple is good and all, but they're the worst major-conference team (the AAC is a major conference, right?) in the tournament, according to Ken Pomeroy. The second and third worst major conference teams, Oregon State and Tulsa, are each 25 or more spots ahead of No. 86 Temple. If Connecticut had blown out No. 81 Hofstra or No. 84 Akron, no one would've blinked.
Memphis, for what it's worth, are rated at No. 71 and have been an unmitigated disaster this season. They stumbled into the championship game after successively blowing out NIT-worthy Tulsa and let-your-coach-find-out-he's-been-fired-during-a-game-worthy Tulane.
*This is all gunk because who knows what the selection committee would've thought? They let in Tulsa, FFS.
I know Connecticut did what they could with the conference their football team forced them into, but they shouldn't be regarded as an elite team as such. And I'm only attacking this subject because everyone just assumes UConn will win this easily.
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UConn is OK at offense, to say the least. They rely on the versatility of 6'7 Daniel Hamilton so score, rebound and playmake. He poses some matchup problems for the Buffs in that he's too big for Xavier Talton to guard him and too quick for George King to consistently contain him. Tre`Shaun Fletcher would be a reasonable answer, especially if he plays defense like he did at Washington. Playing Fletcher over King (or over Gordon in small ball lineups) would sacrifice offense, but as you'll read in a few paragraphs, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Fletcher isn't the shooter King is, but he's good enough to space the floor.
Away from Hamilton, Shonn Miller is UConn's most efficient scorer. He only plays 25 minutes per game, but he still leads the team in scoring at 13 points per game. Miller, the Cornell transfer, attacks the basket when he can, and he's an excellent finisher at the rim. Because the Huskies' nominal power forward isn't much of a shooter, Wesley Gordonwill be tasked with defending him. He's proven he can handle quicker players, so Miller shouldn't be too much of a threat.
Sterling Gibbs and Rodney Purvis will start at the guard positions. Both are solid ball handlers and are UConn's best shooters. Gibbs and Purvis are fine players, but neither of whom pose matchup issues for the Buffs. If Dom Collier is on his game, he could shut down Gibbs, the Seton Hall transfer, before he even gets going. Purvis, the NC State transfer, is better offensively than Gibbs and Xavier Talton is worse defensively than Collier, but there could easily be another stalemate with this matchup.
Jalen Adams was the hero against Cincy and is UConn's obvious X-factor. Off the bench Adams can just as likely score 15 quick points as he lay an egg from the field. He's isn't much of a shooter -- that 70-foot buzzer-beater was only his tenth made three-pointer on the season -- so Josh Fortune, the Providence transfer, and Talton will be able to sag off of him to stop penetration.
Besides Hamilton, Colorado has seen different versions -- some better, some worse -- of every UConn player has. None of those like players has or will pose much matchup issues for the Buffs' fine defense, so the Huskies are unlikely to gash them offensively. As such, this game will likely be decided on the other end and it will hinge upon which team is better at playing to their strengths.
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As you may have heard, Colorado is best when Josh Scott is dominating and has good shooting around him. There is no secret that the Buffs rely on such. What people seem to forget or fail to realize is that the Buffs might be the best rebounding team in the country. In the 68-team field, not one has more total rebounds than the Buffs, and only Baylor and West Virginia (major conference teams only) have more offensive rebounds.
A common stat has been used to dissuade people from picking the Buffs to beat UConn. That stat, so happily flaunted on ESPN, is that Colorado has been outscored per possession over their last 18 games. Ah, if only CU didn't have the monster offensive rebounders who consumed missed shots like suburbanism consumes farmland. Ah, if only those low-percentage, high-quantity tip shots -- which count as whole possessions -- didn't inflate that figure.
Connecticut plays excellent team defense. With great individual defenders in Daniel Hamilton and Amida Brimah, and the great mind of coach Kevin Ollie, that should be no surprise. Their defense on 2-point field goal attempts is especially good, and that's mostly because of their collapsing interior strategy and the superb rim protection of Amida Brimah. They face tons of misses from up close, so offensive rebounding will be key for the Buffs.
As good at defense UConn is, they aren't the best rebounding team around. They're good, just not that good. Not good enough to not get smashed by the Buffs on the glass. Daniel Hamilton is far and away their best rebounder. His 26% defensive rebounding rate is significantly higher than Scott (21%) or Gordon's (18%). For comparison, Andre Roberson's career rate was around 28%.
However, Hamilton will most likely be matched up on the sharpshooting King (or Fletcher), who will gladly command attention on the perimeter. With Hamilton being drawn away from the basket, the Buffs will have an easier time boxing him out and securing offensive rebounds themselves.
With Hamilton on him, King (or Fletcher) might be reduced to nothing more than a floor spacer. If he's unable to contribute offense efficiently, the Buffs will look to Fortune as a secondary scorer. We all know Fortune is deadly when his shots are falling and suicidal when they're not. If the game a stalemate, Fortune can win it or lose it, depending on how his shooting and ball security. Rodney Purvis will likely guard him. Purvis is solid, but he isn't one to force turnovers, which means that if Fortune is going (literally) throw away this game, it will likely be unforced.
Also of note, UConn's best strength on defense is forcing bad 2-point attempts. Of course, Colorado is atrocious from 2-point range. Josh Scott and Tory Miller are the only Buffs to have a 2-point field goal percentage of over 45%. At this point, playing against a great interior defense and a mediocre one makes no real difference. So, uh, Colorado is so bad at a vital basketball skill that they've essentially nullified the others team's best attribute. Hi ho.
The main source of their great 2-point defense, UConn's Brimah is a stellar interior defender. Many believe that he can essentially nullify Colorado's best attribute, which is the post play of Josh Scott. If Brimah does shut down Scott, this game is over unless Josh Fortune and King make double digit three-pointers between them. But I don't think Brimah can do this.
Josh Scott seems to play his best when matched up with a defensive stalwart. This isn't because he suddenly morphs into Hakeem Olajuwon when a great defender is on him, or anything. It's because of the opposing coaches' game plan. When they have an ace interior defender, they're a million times more likely to play Scott one-on-one. But because Josh Scott might be the best post scorer in the country (you could argue for Jakob Poeltl), it doesn't really matter who is guarding him. Sean Miller thought Kaleb Tarczewski and Dusan Ristic could handle Scott, but they got gashed in their first meeting. That would be why Arizona crashed hard on Scott post ups in the Pac-12 tournament.
Moreover, when Scott has a defender on an island, he loves to go right at them to try to draw fouls. This is a good time to mention that Brimah and Phil Nolan, UConn's defensive specialist center, are rather foul prone. If those two get into foul trouble, UConn has no one who can realistically defend Scott.
The Huskies could go into a zone, which always seem like a smart thing to do against Colorado, given their past struggles. However, zone defense is more susceptible to three-pointer barrages than any other defense there is, and in the freaky land of March Madness where simple variance sees the end of seasons, that's dangerous. And then you remember that CU was the best three-point shooting team in the country and Josh Scott can still destroy a zone. I don'twant UConn to play a zone because I don't trust the Buffs' shooters enough, but they should be enough of a threat for Ollie to second guess his strategy.
If the Buffs are able to exploit UConn's man defense enough to warrant a switch to zone defense, they will be in good shape. If the Buffs are then able to exploit UConn's zone defense, they will move on to play Austin Peay for chance at the Sweet Sixteen.
Colorado 69, Connecticut 63