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Four Things We Know About … Connecticut

April 4, 2014

(Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Final Four teams of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship™. Tonight we examine the Connecticut Huskies, the East Region Champion)

 

Cinderella is at the ball in Dallas – well, at least as much of a Cinderella as a No. 7 seed and a program that has won three (3) prior National Championships can be – so here are Four Things we know about the Champion of the East Region, Connecticut:

1.) The Huskies Have the Best Backcourt in Dallas. You know the old axiom “Guard Play Wins Championships” right? Connecticut has the opportunity to prove that true once again with the nation’s (and this tournament’s) best backcourt, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier – a consensus first team All-American, AAC Conference Player of the Year, East Region MVP, and as has already been suggested here, Kemba Walker 2.0 – has put the Huskies on his back this season. No rotation player at the Final Four has a higher usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor, as determined by a complicated statistical formula) than Napier’s 27.7%, and he leads his team in scoring (18.1), rebounding (5.9 !), assists (4.9), steals (1.7) and minutes (34.9), as well as field goal attempts and makes, 3P attempts and makes, and FT attempts and makes (and FT% among their regular rotation at 86.6%). That makes him Batman in my book. Meaning that Boatright is Robin, a role he has embraced with gusto, filling the stat sheet much like Napier as he is second on the team in assists (3.4), steals (1.5), minutes (32.3), FT attempts, makes, and percentage (again, among rotation players at 79.0%), third in points (12.0) and fourth in rebounds (3.4). Boatright is able to take the reins at point guard when Napier needs a breather, and will take over the mantle as Connecticut’s lead guard next season when Napier takes his talents to the NBA; DraftExpress.com has Napier as a mid-Second round pick. Although neither guard is taller than 6’1”, they are interchangeable on the floor, both weapons in pick and roll or pick and pop situations with other teammates or even with each other, capable of shooting from deep (Napier’s 3P% is 39.9, Boatright’s is 37.7) or driving to the rim as well as being lockdown defenders. Due in large part to their efforts, Connecticut is the best three point (38.9 3P%, #25 in the country) and free throw shooting team (77.4 FT%, #5 overall) as well as the second–most efficient defense (an AdjD of 93.0, good for #10 overall according to KenPom) in Dallas this weekend. Head Coach Kevin Ollie knows that combination is going to win you a lot of games, as much as anyone at the Final Four …

2.) Kevin Ollie May Be A “New” Head Coach But He is Not New to The Big Stage. Ollie was a Connecticut assistant in 2011 when the Huskies won their third National Title under Jim Calhoun. He played for 11 NBA teams in a 13-season professional career, and played in the 2001 NBA Finals with Philadelphia. He also may have a little chip on his shoulder from his college days, having lost as a junior at Connecticut to a Final Four-bound Florida team in overtime in the 1994 Sweet 16, and as a senior the following season to the eventual 1995 National Champion UCLA in the Elite Eight. Ollie is also only the fourth coach in NCAA history to reach the Final Four in their first NCAA Tournament appearance as head coach. While only four (4) of the 37 Final Four coaching debutantes since 1990 have won a Title, Ollie’s mentor Jim Calhoun (1999) is one of them, and the institutional memory that Ollie can tap into instilled by the program’s national titles (1999, 2004, 2011) means Ollie and these Huskies don’t have to take a back seat to any of the other teams – Florida (2006, 2007), Kentucky (8 national titles from 1948 to 2012) and Wisconsin (1941) – at Jerry World. Stars and good coaching are not the only key elements to a title run, often times you need a player to figure things out late in the season …

3.) DeAndre Daniels is the Biggest “X Factor” of the Final Four. Connecticut’s 6’9” junior combo forward is Top 3 on the Huskies in minutes (28.7), points (13.0), rebounds (5.9), blocks (1.4), 3P% (43.2), and FTA (2.5 per game), becoming the third guy in Connecticut’s newfound “Big 3” (Does that make him Alfred the Butler? I’m not sure …) with Napier and Boatright. Saddled with a reputation for inconsistency, Daniels’ production declined across the board (except for rebounds and steals) during conference play, enduring a stretch late in the regular season where he scored in single digits five out of six games and shot 38.6% from the field. He also shot 37.8% in the seven (7) of Connecticut’s eight (8) losses he played, both figures well below his season FG% of 46.9. In the AAC Conference & NCAA tournament play (7 games), Daniels turned his season around and raised his production, exceeding his season averages in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.3), and overall FG% (50.0). With his athleticism (7’2” standing reach), steady handle (10.9% turnover rate, lowest among Connecticut’s top 8 in minutes played), offensive versatility (a solid post game and shooting range beyond the 3PT line) and scoring potential (25 games in double figures, six [6] with 21+ points), Daniels will be critical to the Huskies efforts this weekend, but their “Big 3” may not be enough to cut down the nets on Monday either …

4.) Someone Else Will Have To Step Up for Connecticut. Whether it be the sharpshooting Berliner (No, not a jelly doughnut, but a citizen of Berlin) Niels Giffey, or the shot-erasing Amida Brimah (2.3 bpg), or jack-of-all-trades Lasan Kromah (third on the team in both assists and steals), or maybe even understudy guard off the bench Omar Calhoun should Batman or Robin falter, someone is going to have to become a reliable offensive option this weekend outside of the Big 3. If he can find his range in the cavernous AT&T Stadium, my bet is Giffey (pronounced giff-EYE), the German senior who leads the team in 3P shooting at a lofty 49.1% clip, making him the Huskies most efficient rotation player offensively despite being an astonishing eleventh on the team in usage rate (15.1%, eighth among Connecticut’s Top 10 players in minutes played). Brimah and steady yet unspectacular Philip Nolan will also have to be stout defensively and battle on the boards for what is by far the weakest rebounding team (#180 in rebounding margin, +0.4) at the Final Four.

To avoid turning into a pumpkin at midnight, Connecticut has to not just believe but know they belong. They’ve come a long way from a team that was banned from last season’s NCAAs due to academic probation, and the squad that looked like they didn’t want to be on the floor in their first NCAA game, overcoming a 10-point first-half deficit and playing from behind for most of the second half before beating St. Joseph’s in overtime. Confidence can carry a team far; Napier certainly has it, as one of three remaining seniors (along with Giffey and Tyler Olander) from Connecticut’s 2011 Championship team, and the rest of the Huskies should too, knowing they were the last team to beat their opponent Florida this season. Maybe, they can become Florida’s last loss once again.

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