Even if coach Jim Calhoun doesn't like it when people bring it up, the No. 9 Huskies begin their national title defense Thursday night at 9:20 p.m. when they take on No. 8 Iowa State in the South Region. The Cyclones head into the NCAAs with a 22-10 record. By itself, not particularly noteworthy and it explains the middling seed. But they're also one of the best three-point-shooting teams in the country, something the Huskies have struggled to defend this year.
However, coach Fred Hoiberg understands that offensive strengths go both ways. And while ISU may excel from behind the arc, UConn can dominate the paint. Naturally, this troubles him heading into Thursday's matchup.
“Well, first of all, they’re huge,” Hoiberg said during a conference call earlier this week. “With [Alex] Oriakhi and [Andre] Drummond, it’s tough to score against them in the paint. And then you have Roscoe Smith at 6-foot-8 starting at the three. They’re the biggest, longest front court we’ll play all year. And then you have Lamb, who is an unbelievable talent. They’re playing their best basketball of the season right now.”
Calhoun sounded equally as concerned about the Cyclones' perimeter game and said that he might counter it with a smaller lineup. The Huskies have featured Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright at various points this season with mixed results. Some of that is due to youth and inexperience, and some of that is because of lack of continuity; Boatright missed nine games while the NCAA decided his eligibility. Either way, it's a possibility should Iowa State get hot from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, some experts think that the Cyclones are running up against a Huskies team that could be peaking. It's an odd phrase to write -- while it was certainly fitting a year ago, UConn has been a model of inconsistency in 2011-12. That said, they did win three of their last four, and it's no coincidence that it happened after Calhoun returned to the bench.
“UConn is an intriguing team to play, because you worry that you might be getting them at their peak — after all the distractions that team’s had this season,” former Providence and Drake coach Keno Davis said Monday according to the Des Moines Register.
After dealing with the aforementioned Boatright eligibility issues, academic sanctions because of low APRs, and Calhoun's suspension for recruiting violations, Davis thinks the Huskies have come out the other side better for it.
“Now it seems like they have that stuff figured out,” said Davis. “Those distractions can hurt during the season, but matching up with UConn right now — they might be a more focused team.”
Too optimistic? Maybe. But nowhere near as hopeful as Kemba Walker, who has UConn … winning it all.
One way or the other, we'll find out Thursday.